Almost everyone gets cramps with their period; it’s a part of life...right? That’s what we’ve been taught, and the theory is confirmed when we hear other women complain about getting their period. But what about those of us who have to call out sick for work every month? Is missing a day of productivity because we’re in so much pain that we can’t think just another part of life?
Or how about this one: pain during sex is normal. Most women receive this message at a young age. Many of us hear it before we even start having sex.
But what if these symptoms--period pain and pain during penetrative sex--are actually warning signs? What if your body is trying to tell you something?
For at least 176 million women, this pain is actually a result of endometriosis, a seriously painful condition that is related to estrogen and inflammation in the body.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue strikingly similar to the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus.
These patches of tissue are referred to as “lesions,” “implants,” or “nodules.” When we menstruate, this tissue, with nowhere to go, bleeds and becomes inflamed. And the experience can be really painful.
The tissue can grow on the outside of the pelvis, on the bowel, ovaries, and in rare cases, other organs in the body.
Severe menstrual cramps and pain during sex are two of the most common symptoms, although not everyone with endometriosis lives with pain. But many women also have pelvic pain between periods, heavy periods, diarrhea or constipation, and lower back pain.
We don’t know enough about the condition to say what causes it, though there are a handful of theories. What we do know is that endometriosis is related to estrogen levels in the body and is exacerbated by inflammation.
Endometriosis is called the disease of silence.
The stigma around talking about painful sex and menstruation makes it difficult for women with endo to talk to their doctors. It also means that doctors don’t always listen to women when they report their symptoms. On average, it takes 7 years for someone with endometriosis to receive a proper diagnosis.
Meanwhile, women live with debilitating pain, missing work and important events every month. They continue to have sex that is painful at worst and uncomfortable at best without knowing how to talk about it.
While it has been estimated that 176 million women worldwide have endometriosis, the failure to properly diagnose the condition means that there are surely more. Doctors will often prescribe birth control without seeking a diagnosis first. And while hormonal treatment does sometimes alleviate the symptoms, this leaves many women dependent on the pill with no other options.
Treating without diagnosing also leaves you with no way of knowing whether you actually have endometriosis, or whether you have other uterine conditions that display similar symptoms like uterine fibroids or adenomyosis.
Women all over the world manage their endo pain without the pill or surgery.
Surgery or birth control are touted as the best treatment options, but they aren’t the only ones. Women all over the world experiment with lifestyle changes to live a pain-free life. There are two important things to know if you’re diagnosed with endo.
Endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent condition. This means that the development and growth of the condition are related to your estrogen levels. This explains why many women find that their pain goes away after menopause.
But it gets a tad trickier than that. The lesions that develop outside your uterus actually produce their own estrogen. So the more lesions that develop, the more estrogen is generated, and on and on.
So it’s important to make lifestyle changes that lower your estrogen levels. Exercise is essential to breaking down estrogen in the body. Whether it be kickboxing, running, skating, or tap dance, getting your body moving and your heart rate up is your most reliable natural ally against your pain.
The second thing you need to know: endometriosis is related to inflammation in the body. A lot of research points to this and wonders whether endometriosis is an immune disorder, but the jury is still out on that one.
What we do know is that the lesions that form on the outside of your uterus contain inflammatory cells. And eating an anti-inflammatory diet can lower or eliminate your pain completely.
Avoid food that causes inflammation and eat food that lowers inflammation and breaks down estrogen. This means fiber, omega-3’s, cruciferous vegetables, fruit, and fish.
It also means saying goodbye to alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods like bagels and fried chicken. You may even want to experiment with a gluten-free diet.
Women with endometriosis know how to advocate for themselves.
It’s a tough lesson to learn but the reward outweighs the struggle. Women with endo know how to use their voice to advocate for themselves because they’ve had years of practice.
Doctors don’t always believe us when we tell them we’re in pain. Racial biases in the healthcare system make it an even tougher fight for women of color. This is why it takes so long to get a diagnosis: because it takes so long to be taken seriously sometimes.
Yet, we get it done. And we tell our story firsthand to our family and friends, and then to the world on social media. This makes it a little easier for the next woman to get her diagnosis.
You can hear Chelsea Bri tell her story and educate you on the signs and symptoms of endometriosis on the Emjoy app, in the session, Signs and Symptoms.
Awareness and education will close the seven-year gap. It will also attract more funding which will help us learn how to properly prevent and treat the condition.
So don’t be afraid to let your uterus take the spotlight. Talk about it, and if your doctor dismisses your symptoms, keep talking until you find one that finds them significant enough to take a closer look.