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Some previous research, as well as anecdotal evidence, have suggested that the Pill could help women with painful periods, but a 2009 review of all available research concluded there was limited evidence for such a conclusion.
The new findings, from a Swedish study that has been running for 30 years, show that women who used the combined birth control pill (estrogen plus progestin) suffered less severe pain than women who did not use the Pill, the researchers said.
Their study findings appear online Jan. 18 in the journal Human Reproduction.
Experts estimate that pain associated with menstrual periods accounts for 600 million lost working hours and $2 billion in lost productivity in the United States each year.
One expert in the United States noted that doctors have long used the Pill to help ease such symptoms.
"Many obstetrician/gynecologists have used oral contraceptive pills to help alleviate menstrual pain, otherwise known as dysmenorrhea," said Dr. Jenifer Wu, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "This is technically an off-label use of these commonly prescribed medications," she added.
The Swedish researchers noted that younger women typically suffer more from painful periods than older women. And while they did find that symptoms eased somewhat with increasing age, the effects of age and Pill use were independent of each other and use of the Pill had a greater effect overall.
The study included three groups of women who turned 19 in 1981, 1991 and 2001. Each group included 400 to 520 women, who were asked about their pattern of menstruation and menstrual pain, reproductive history, contraceptive use, height and weight.
The women provided this information at ages 19 and 24.
"By comparing women at different ages, it was possible to demonstrate the influence of [the Pill] on the occurrence and severity of dysmenorrhea, at the same time taking into account possible changes due to increasing age," Dr. Ingela Lindh, of the Institute of Clinical Sciences, Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University, said in a journal news release. "We found there was a significant difference in the severity of dysmenorrhea depending on whether or not the women used combined oral contraceptives."
Dr. Steven Goldstein, an obstetrician/gynecologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said: "The study results are not surprising. It's gratifying to see researchers documenting scientifically what practitioners have been seeing for a very long time. The amount of discomfort from a woman's period with a combination birth control pill is a fraction of what it is without the Pill. There is a diminution of pain from the Pill."
For her part, Wu believes that "doctors should include a discussion of all the benefits and risks when presenting birth control options, and the improvement of dysmenorrhea is a significant benefit to oral contraceptive pills."
-- Robert Preidt
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