Feature Archive

Ending Painful Periods

WebMD Feature

June 23, 2000 -- I used to have periods that knocked me flat. Back when I first started to menstruate, it hurt so bad that I would almost pass out. I'd be sick in bed for two days with a heating pad over my abdomen, throwing up and crying from the pain.

As I got older, the worst of the cramps went away, but I traded them in for something almost as bad: menstrual migraines. I had two young children, and I was taking the Pill for birth control the usual way -- 21 days of hormones each month followed by seven days of white placebo pills. That's when I'd get my period -- and the headaches. There were times when I couldn't come in to work. I couldn't play with my children. I'd just shut the door and let my husband deal with them. All I could do was lie in a darkened room with a cold rag over my face.

I don't know if you'd call it fate or luck or what, but as it happened I worked as a medical secretary for a highly regarded obstetrician and gynecologist, Patricia Sulak, MD, who teaches at Texas A & M University College of Medicine. She had been doing clinical tests of "menstrual suppression" -- in which you take hormones the whole month long and don't get your period. I'd watch all the women coming in for the study and see how happy they were with the system. It seemed like it could be a lifesaver for me, as well. So I consulted with her and said, "I'd like to do this, too."

It wasn't quite that easy, of course. I wondered if the lining of my uterus would build up over time and someday explode in a torrent of bleeding. I learned that isn't how menstruation works. Some women have light "breakthrough bleeding" if they vary the time of day that they take the Pill -- say, if they take it at 7 a.m. one morning and at noon the next day. But the uterine lining doesn't build up while you're on birth control pills, and menstruation isn't cumulative. The reason women have such light periods while on the Pill is that they're shedding the small lining that built up only after they stopped their pills that month.

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