Katherine Murphy realized she needed prescription anti-inflammatory medicine about one year after she started her period. Some women take even longer than Murphy to report menstrual pain, according to a University of Florida study.
Dr. Nash Moawad, director of the Minimally Invasive Surgery Center at UF Health, led the study.
Moawad said women who are in their 30s and 40s often take years to report pelvic pain, so the researchers looked at younger women to identify the root of the problem.
Of the 2,000 female students at UF who were surveyed, there were 390 responses.
The mean age of the responders was 23, and about 72 percent reported having pelvic pain in the last 12 months. Seventy-five percent of those who reported pain did not seek medical attention. Also, about one-third reported having painful intercourse and one-fifth had pain in external genitalia.
Often, pelvic pain in women goes unreported.
According to Moawad, menstruation was the cause of pain for about 80 percent of the women in the survey with reported pelvic pain.
Moawad compared pelvic pain to headaches and said there could be any number of reasons for the pain.
Sometimes the problem may not be gynecological, he said. There could be bladder, bowel, muscle or psychological problems causing the pain. Ovarian cysts and endometriosis could also be the reason.
Endometriosis is a painful condition that affects about 10 to 15 percent of the female population, but it often takes years for women to be diagnosed because they wait to report it.
Moawad said the biggest drawback in waiting to report pelvic pain is the effect it continuously has on women’s lifestyles.
“The vast majority just think they’re unlucky,” he said.
Moawad said the main reason women choose to suffer through the pain instead of going to a physician is a lack of awareness that extreme pain is not normal.
“If the pain is bad enough that you really can’t function, you should see a doctor,” Moawad said. “It should not impair your work routine or affect your lifestyle.”
Julie Mann, who worked on the study as part of a capstone project for her master’s degree in public health, said that she was most surprised by the number of women who reported having painful intercourse.
Mann said she knows that embarrassment can sometimes be a factor when talking about this kind of problem, but it is important for women to be proactive.
“Doctors have seen it all,” Mann said. “It’s OK to be embarrassed. I think when you wait to talk about it, it’s a huge burden on your quality of life.”
Health insurance was also a factor that prevented women from going to see a doctor, Moawad said, and in the case of college students who move away from home, they don’t see a doctor because their usual physician is in a different area.
Lack of empathy and physician understanding was another barrier Moawad cited as a reason why women do not seek doctors’ help. In that case, Moawad said women should remember that getting a second opinion is ideal so they receive the right information and tests. Many of the conditions that cause the pain are treatable, and the earlier a woman gets help, the better.
“You deserves to speak with someone who specializes in the problem you’re having and who listens to you,” Moawad said.