Ending Painful Periods

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

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.

Well, OK, I wouldn't be at work and suddenly have a gusher. But I was still nervous. "Is this normal?" I kept wondering. "Is it right for me?"

My husband was even more skeptical, and he was pretty sure it wasn't normal. Women have periods, he said. That's just what they do. But then again, I thought, men don't have periods, so how could they possibly understand what it's like?

Ultimately, I decided to try menstrual suppression because I trusted my doctor and I was sick and tired of lying in pain in a darkened room for a few days every month. Why should I have to live my life that way when there was an alternative? I began taking a daily tablet of Desogen -- a low-dose standard birth control pill with 30 micrograms of estrogen, like almost all of the pills available today.

It truly changed my life. The very first month, the headaches were gone. I can't explain how much better I felt. No more estrogen withdrawal, no more headaches, no more darkened rooms and washcloths. What an amazing feeling! And it wasn't long before my husband the skeptic was convinced. I'm happier now, I'm not knocked out by migraines, and that makes me a lot more fun to live with.

I've been suppressing my period for nearly a year now. Typically, I go about seventeen weeks between periods, and when I do go off the pill for a week and have a period, it feels like a cleansing to me. Although I still get migraines when I take a break from the Pill, it's a lot easier to face them three times a year instead of every month. Seventeen weeks isn't a magic number; it's just what works for me, and my doctor says it's fine.

Some of my friends think this is weird, but others are starting to wonder whether menstrual suppression will work for them. A few have said "No more periods? Really? Wow! Can I do that, too?"

The answer most likely is yes -- but only under a doctor's supervision. And, if your doctor doesn't know what you're talking about, have her talk to mine.

Menstrual suppression may not be right for everyone -- but it definitely works for me.

Tracy Glover, 30, is a medical secretary who lives near Temple, Texas.

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