From about the age of 12-51, your period comes every month as a sign that your reproductive system is working and ready for childbirth – long before and after most women in Western society are thinking about having babies. It is important to understand what constitutes a normal period make sure that the body is functioning correctly.
What is Menstruation?
Menstruation, a discharge of blood and tissue from the uterus, flows through the cervix and out the vagina for 2 to 7 days per month. The bleeding or menses phase is just one part of a four-part cycle that includes:
- Day 1-5 – The menses phase, when lining of the uterus is shed in the absence of pregnancy.
- Day 6-10 – The follicular phase, when estrogen rises and the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows and another hormone causes follicles in the ovaries to grow and form a mature egg cell (ovum).
- Day 11-14 – The ovulation phase when an increase in the luteinizing hormone causes the ovary to release an egg (ovulation).
- Day 15-28 – The luteal phase, where the egg is released from the ovary and travels through the fallopian tubes to the uterus. The level of the hormone progesterone increases to further prepare the uterus for potential pregnancy. If an egg is fertilized by a sperm, it attaches to the wall of the uterus. Otherwise, the levels of progesterone and estrogen drop and the cycle begins again as the egg sac and lining of the uterus is shed at the end of this phase.
While 28 days is considered an average cycle length, menstrual cycles of 21 – 35 days are considered normal.
What to Expect With a Monthly Period
Common symptoms that may accompany menstruation include:
- Cramps in the lower abdomen and back
- Food cravings
- Sleep problems
- Tenderness in the breast
Signs of an Abnormal Period
Despite these bothersome monthly symptoms, having periods on time is a sign of good health. Either not having periods or experiencing excessive pain or bleeding are outside the realm of normal and can signal a more serious medical condition, such as:
Amenorrhea, the absence of a period in young girls older than 15 or 16, or in women or girls who have not had a period for 90 days. Common causes include eating disorders, extensive exercise, extreme weight loss, stress, other medical conditions like pregnancy or breast-feeding. Often common among dancers, runners, and participants in others sports where lightness is valued, the problem is often remedied through improved diet. Amenorrhea indicates that the body is not producing enough estrogen, which can cause reproductive problems and impact general health.
Dysmenorrhea or painful periods with severe cramps, is a result of an excess of prostaglandin, especially in teens. Older women with severe cramps may have uterine fibroids or endometriosis. The treatment might just be ibuprofen as found in common anti-cramp medicine (Midol, Motrin, or Advil), ketoprofen, or naproxen, as in Aleve. If OTC medications do not alleviate the problem, a physician can determine other potential causes and treatments.
Abnormal uterine bleeding defined as bleeding that’s different from normal menstrual periods, might include bleeding between periods, after sex, spotting during the month, excessively heavy bleeding, bleeding for more days than normal, or bleeding after menopause. The condition might not be serious or can indicate other problems such as polyps, uterine fibroids, or cancer. A women’s health professional will check for problems not usually found in women of your age and prescribe and determine the proper treatment plan.
Whether you have questions about your normal monthly cycle or you have other symptoms that indicate a potential problem, the caring professionals at Rocky Mountain Women’s Health Center can give you advice about your period.
This article reviewed by Dr. Sean Jerig.