Oxford University researchers conducted a brain imaging study on 12 women who have painful periods and 12 women who don’t. According to Science Daily, hot pads were placed on each subject’s abdomen and inner arm while she was in an MRI scanner and her brain’s response to the heat was compared “at three different points in the woman’s menstrual cycles.”
Researchers found that the women with painful periods were more sensitive to the hot pads even when their period pain had subsided, which suggests that excruciating periods may lead to a longer-lasting shift in how the brain processes body pain.
These changes in sensitivity and processing of pain are similar to what is seen in patients with chronic pain conditions. Like chronic pain sufferers, these female subjects had “significantly lower levels of cortisol, a hormone connected to the body’s stress response.” Study author Dr. Katy Vincent claims, “Many of the features of chronic pain conditions are present in women with painful periods, even though the pain is experienced for just a few days every month.”
According to the study, 90% of women experience painful periods at some point in their lives but they are particularly common among adolescents and young women. Unfortunately, many women are unlikely to seek help for painful periods out of embarrassment and many medical professionals do not take period pain seriously enough to understand the potential suffering of their patients. The Oxford researchers argue that “because painful periods can measurably affect women’s lives and alter the way they experience pain, the condition should always be given prompt and adequate treatment.”