Bloody Hell: a discussion of PMS and what it really means

Premenstrual syndrome, commonly referred to as PMS, is the kind of thing that everyone should’ve been taught about in sex-ed but instead, we were given a couple of tampons and that was the end of it. Despite the many peer-reviewed research papers that have been published over the last century, some people still insist that PMS is all in our heads. But don’t worry, the bloating isn’t from those questionable nachos you ate, PMS is a genuine – and reasonably common – issue that unfortunately isn’t taken as seriously in society as it should be.

PMS is characterised by moderate to severe symptoms, typically occurring two weeks before your period. These symptoms include migraines, mood swings, and irritability. If you are experiencing both somatic (body-related) and affective (mood-related) symptoms five days before menstruation, for three periods in a row, it is possible that you may have PMS.

Although 80 per cent of cisgender menstruating women experience premenstrual symptoms, only 15 to 20 per cent of this number actually have PMS. The difference lies in the intensity and regularity: on the extreme end of this scale is Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PDD), which is characterised by extreme emotional distress during the two-week run-up to your period. Less than 8 per cent of cisgender women experience PDD.

Despite the high proportion of people suffering from PMS, doctors have not, as of yet, identified a sole cause. There are arguments that hormonal imbalance – more specifically, serotonin – is the root, although there are also signs it may be genetically inherited. Doctors are reasonably certain, however, that excess caffeine isn’t the cause, which is good news for the more sleep-deprived among us.

When it comes to figuring out whether you suffer from PMS, the British Medical Journal suggests that your first step should be to keep a detailed diary of your symptoms for around three months. Next, you should go to your GP with your diary. Even if you aren’t sure, you should still get it checked out: some patients may have menstrual magnification instead of PMS, which occurs when other medical problems are exacerbated due to your periods. Anaemia and endometriosis also have similar symptoms to PMS.

By now, it’s a tired cliché that all period-related problems can be fixed with a bar of Dairy Milk. PMS is a medical condition and should be treated as such – although there is no definitive cure, there are plenty of suggested treatments whose success varies on a person-to-person basis. One non-medicinal solution is supportive therapy, which involves a medical professional talking to their patient openly and honestly about the realities of living with PMS. This reassurance is an important first step, especially because so many of us have been taught to downplay our negative period experiences as ‘normal’. Diet supplements, especially calcium carbonate and magnesium, are useful in relieving physical symptoms, while medicine such as the combined contraceptive pill and antidepressants can help with the emotional instability that many people suffering PMS will experience.

Although it can feel like a punch in the gut – literally – when your period-related issues aren’t treated as valid medical problems, it’s important to remember that many people will experience PMS over their lifetime and there are lots of resources out there which can help you decide what your next steps will be.

Image: r. nial bradshaw via flickr

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