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Period Problems: Irregular Periods, Heavy Periods & Menstrual Problems

by DP Nguyen

in PMS, Women’s Health

Period Problems: Irregular Periods, Heavy Periods & Menstrual ProblemsPeriod problems can affect any woman. Even if you have a history of never, ever missing a period, it’s possible for you to occasionally have a period problem. You may be extra stressed that month, or maybe you’ve been traveling and suffering from jetlag. There are a lot of factors that can sometimes affect your menstrual cycle and lead to period problems.

For most women, their menstrual period arrives at the same time every month without fail. The textbook menstrual cycle is 28 days long, which means that there are 28 days between the first day of your period and the first day of the next. Not every woman follows the 28-day rule though. A normal menstrual cycle ran range from 21 days (your period is 3 weeks apart) to 35 days (your period is 5 weeks apart). What’s “normal” for you may be different for another woman.

Normal Periods Don’t Exist

You probably learned in economics that there is no such thing as a free lunch – nothing in life is free. And the same goes with your menstrual cycle. There is no such thing as a “normal period.” Every woman has a different menstrual cycle, and the length, duration, and days in between each period can be varied, too.

For some women, they have 34-day cycles. Other women have classic 28-day cycles. You may have three-day periods, in which you have one day of heavy menstrual bleeding and two days of lighter flow. Your best friend’s period may last for seven long days, where she has heavy blood flow for four or five days. That’s normal for her.

If you’ve been having your period for a while, you begin to get a feel for what’s normal for you. When you pay attention, you can see the pattern in your period’s frequency (how often you have periods), duration (how long your period lasts), and the flow (how heavy or light your bleeding is). When one of these elements is out of whack, it’s only natural to wonder what’s causing your “irregular periods.”

The Most Common Period Problems

All women should track their menstrual cycle. You can do this the old-fashioned way, or by using a period tracker app on your mobile phone. Paying attention to your period can help you spot problems when they occur, so you can get down to the nitty-gritty of what’s causing them. Here are the most common menstrual problems that women face:

Bleeding Between Periods

Spotting between periods can be normal, or it can be a serious issue.

There are a number of women who routinely spot between periods. This menstrual problem is often benign (not serious) for them. Spotting can be an ovulation symptom (due to the rapid surge and increase in estrogen around the time the egg bursts out of the follicle at ovulation), and it can also occur due to a woman forgetting to take her birth control pill.

On the other hand, if you’ve never spotted or experienced any type of bleeding in between your periods, and this symptom has appeared out of nowhere, you need to seek medical help. Sometimes bleeding can be due to cancer, an ectopic pregnancy, an irritated sore in your vagina, or a polyp in the uterus or cervix.

If you’re worried, visit your doctor for a pelvic exam to figure out what’s going on.

Missed or Skipped Periods

There are a number of factors that can cause missed or skipped periods. Pregnancy is the number one reason for a missed period. (You don’t have periods when you’re pregnant.) If you’ve been having your periods regularly (no irregular periods at all), you should always entertain the possibility that you could get pregnant. Birth control can be effective at preventing pregnancy, but it’s not always 100 percent. Even the most careful woman has a 1 percent chance of becoming pregnant, regardless of the birth control method she chooses. Abstinence (no sexual contact at all) is the only 100 percent way to prevent pregnant.

If you’re not pregnant, you may miss your period due to high levels of stress, excessive exercise, anorexia and eating disorders, rapid weight gain or weight loss, jetlag, and hormonal problems. Stopping birth control pills can also throw your menstrual cycle off, and lead to irregular or skipped periods. It can take several months after stopping hormonal contraceptives for your period to return to normal.

For further reading on this specific period problem, please read the post: Reasons for Missed Periods When You’re Not Pregnant.

Irregular Periods (Oligomenorrhea)

In the first two or three years after the start of menstruation, it’s common for teenagers to experience irregular periods. You may have a normal period one month, and not have another one for two months. You might have two periods in one month. Irregular periods in teenagers is normal, and it’s due to your fluctuating hormones. For many girls, their periods will even out and become more regular.

There are, however, some women who never, ever establish a normal menstrual pattern. They may suffer from irregular periods (the medical term is oligomenorrhea) all of their reproductive life. These women never know what day their period will arrive, and this can be a huge inconvenience for these women. Ovulation is difficult for these women to predict as well.

Once you reach your 40s, you may start to have irregular cycles due to perimenopause – this refers to the five (or more) years before menopause (the official end of your periods). Women who are going through perimenopause can suffer from irregular periods. One month, their period might arrive on day 30 of their cycle. The next month, it arrives 21 days later. And the following month, their period doesn’t arrive until 43 days after the last one. In addition to this period problem, women going through perimenopause may experience hot flashes, mood swings, sleeping difficulty and anxiety.

If perimenopause isn’t the cause of your menstrual problems, it’s possible that your irregular periods are due to stress, extreme weight loss or gain, the use of medications (especially ones that affect your central nervous system – such as antipsychotics and antidepressants), thyroid problems and other endocrine disorders, polycystic ovary disease, and other hormonal problems.

Painful Periods (Dysmenorrhea)

Unless you’re incredibly lucky, every woman will experience some degree of discomfort when her period comes around. Menstrual cramps aren’t fun, and their severity can range from mild to crazy intense. Cramps are simply uterine contractions (like you’d feel during labor) that help your uterus shed its lining. For most women, they only experience cramps for a day or two.

You may have dysmenorrhea – the medical term for painful periods – if you find that your abdominal cramps are so painful that it’s hard to get out of bed. Women who suffer from this period problem may also notice other uncomfortable symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, headaches, lower backaches, and even diarrhea.

Painful periods can be due to menstruation itself, or it can be caused by a reproductive problem, such as fibroids or endometriosis – a condition that occurs when the lining of your uterus grows in other areas of your body. If your painful periods are caused by fibroids or endometriosis, you can be treated with surgery.

The only way to figure out what’s causing your painful periods is to go to your doctor and get an exam. You may require a pelvic exam, pap smear, and possibly an ultrasound or a minimally invasive surgery called a laparoscopy.

For all women with painful periods, you may find that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve) – help give you temporary pain relief. These medications prevent your body from producing prostaglandins (the chemicals in the body that encourage uterine contractions), and this helps you have less severe pain. Your physician may also recommend that you begin take hormonal contraceptives, like the birth control pill or an intrauterine device (IUD), to help make your periods more comfortable.

Heavy Menstrual Periods (Menorrhagia)

The average woman will lose about two or three tablespoons of blood every month with her period. This equates to two to four pad or tampon changes on her heaviest days. Women who have menorrhagia (heavier than normal periods) can lose five or more tablespoons of blood with her monthly period. Women with this period problem can go through five pad or tampon changes a day.

If you’re going through one or more pads or tampons every few hours, this is a sign that your period is heavier than normal. Please don’t ignore this menstrual problem – please go and see your gynecologist to see what’s the cause.

Heavy periods can be caused by an early miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, uterine fibroids, polyps, benign (not dangerous) tumors in your uterus, uterine cancer, clotting disorders, a change in your birth control pills, the use of certain drugs (including steroids and blood thinners, and other conditions.

When to Call the Doctor about Your Period Problems

It’s always a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor when you notice anything out of the ordinary. If you feel uncomfortable, or you’re worried about your menstrual period, contact your physician and get a gynecological exam to make sure that you’re healthy down there.

You should definitely go see a doctor if:

  • You have always had regular periods, but all of a sudden, your cycles are irregular.
  • You’re experiencing missed periods for several months in a row, and you’re positive that you’re not pregnant.
  • Your menstrual bleeding lasts for more than seven days. Or your period comes more than 21 days, or longer than 35 days for at least three months.
  • You haven’t had a period in three months.
  • You have painful periods that are interfering with your life.

If you’re having period problems, you should really make an appointment with your gynecologist or doctor to figure out what’s going on. Don’t let menstrual problems make your life miserable.


DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick's Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

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