John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, revealed this week that research shows period pain can be as “bad as having a heart attack”. He said: “Men don’t get it and it hasn’t been given the centrality it should have. I do believe it’s something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine.”
Dr Imogen Shaw, a GP specialising in women’s healthcare, welcomed his comments, saying: “I wouldn’t say [period pain] has been hugely investigated,” and when asked if the issue would be taken more seriously if men experienced it, said: “I suspect there would be, being very cynical.”
It is extraordinary how little the medical profession engages with menstruation. Although recent years have seen period taboos broken through social media campaigns, this has yet to permeate medical discourse - and periods are seldom given serious medical consideration in research. Scant research has been conducted on specific pain prevention or pain relief and devices such as tampons, moon-cups and sanitary towels remain rudimentary.
It’s not only women’s period pain which is taken less seriously, either – ignoring women’s pain is a concerning practise across medicine. Recent research has shown that women’s pain is taken much less seriously by doctors generally.
Men wait an average of 49 minutes before being treated for abdominal pain. For women, the wait is 65 minutes for the same symptoms. It’s thought that this is because women are seen as exaggerating pain and being ‘dramatic’ due to sexist stereotypes, while men are listened to and believed when they express the same pain and symptoms.
Indeed, the word ‘hysterical’, itself stems from hystericus, meaning ‘of the womb’, indelibly linking how society has linked wombs with overreaction, incredibility and instability.
The great historians of the world have been mostly silent on the issue of menstruation. Period pain has long been restricted to whispered exchanges between mothers, daughters, sisters and female friends, rather than worthy of polite conversation, never mind the annals of history or intellectual debate.
However, menstrual blood occasionally seeps through history's pages, and its rare appearances reveal something telling.
For Aristotle, period blood was the elixir of life which mingled with sperm to produce babies, making it at once an unnatural horror and the natural proof of woman's innate inferiority, leading him to conclude, "we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature."
The Old Testament offers a similar mixture of sanctimonious horror and boyish fascination at the gore of menstruation in a flamboyant Leviticus passage which advocates that menstruating women be excluded from society for seven days, until "on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles or young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness."
In the eighteenth century, fads for astronomy brought a new element to medical discussions on menstruation. As one of King George II's physicians, Richard Mead, pronounced: "Everyone knows how great a share the moon has in forwarding those evacuations of the female sex."
Since these men’s pronouncements, basic research has established the link between monthly blood and the shedding of the lining of the womb. But beyond this, precious little engagement with menstruation has entered medical discourse.
Despite affecting women and trans men around the world for days every month, the pain involved in menstruation is seldom questioned nor are serious attempts to alleviate it mentioned. This is largely because menstruation is presented as ‘Woman's Troubles’, and framed as a natural pain innate to women; almost a holy, mystical suffering like childbirth.
It’s as if to ask for relief is to be less of a woman, or to give up the pretence of women being silent, stoic receptacles of reproduction. To demand medical discourse, aid or intervention in the form of pain relief would be giving up the deeply gendered game of keeping quiet, pursing your lips and simply hugging the hot water bottle tighter against your abdomen.
While it’s a relief that Aristotle and the Old Testament’s pronouncements on periods are no longer considered the height of knowledge on the issue, the medical profession’s engagement with menstruation still leaves a lot to be desired.
Menstruation may no longer be the taboo that it once was, but it’s still not considered a respectable enough issue to warrant serious scientific consideration. Women will suffer because of this, every month, until it is.
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