Introduction

Menstruation is a normal and healthy part of a female’s life.  Menstruation, commonly called a period, occurs each month in a fairly regular cycle.  During this time, the uterine lining sheds.  A period usually lasts from five to seven days.  Common symptoms include bloating, cramps, headaches, and mood swings.  Symptoms can differ from person to person and from month to month.

Anatomy

The internal female reproductive system includes the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and vagina.  The ovaries are two small organs that produce eggs (ova) and hormones.  An ovary typically releases one mature egg each month.  Two fallopian tubes extend from near the ovaries to the uterus.  The fallopian tubes transport the mature eggs to the uterus (womb).

The uterus is a pear-shaped organ where a baby grows in during pregnancy.  The lining of the uterus undergoes changes every month to facilitate and maintain pregnancy.  The uterus is joined to the vagina by the cervix.  The vagina is a muscular passageway that extends from the cervix to the external female genitalia.

Causes

The menstrual cycle is a regular process that is regulated by hormones.  The average menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days, but it varies among individuals and may be longer or shorter.  Each month the uterine lining thickens as it builds up extra blood and tissue in preparation for a potential fertilized egg.  An egg that is fertilized by a sperm cell may implant itself in the nourishing uterine lining and develop into a baby.  An unfertilized egg or a fertilized egg that does not implant in the uterus passes through the reproductive system.  During menstruation, the uterine lining sheds and the blood leaves the body through the vagina.

Symptoms

Menstrual cycles, periods, and symptoms vary from month to month and from person to person.  Periods usually last from five to seven days.  Common symptoms include bloating, headaches, lower abdominal cramps, and breast tenderness.  Your moods may change, and you may feel more irritable or sensitive than usual.  You may crave certain foods.  You may feel tired and have difficulty concentrating.

Diagnosis

Menstruation is a normal and healthy part of a female’s life.  You should contact your doctor if you experience longer, shorter, heavier, or skipped periods.  Contact your doctor if you have severe pain or bleeding in between periods.  These can be symptoms of other medical conditions and should be evaluated.

Treatment

There are several ways you may be able to ease your symptoms.  It can be helpful to exercise, use relaxation techniques, and get plenty of sleep.  Eat a high fiber diet and avoid food and drinks that contain alcohol, caffeine, sugar, or salt.  Taking a warm bath or applying a heating pad to your lower abdomen may help make your cramps feel better.  Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication may help relieve symptoms.

Am I at Risk

Menstruation is a natural and normal part of the female menstrual cycle.  Girls typically get their first periods at about age 12 or 13, but it may occur a few years earlier or later than that.  Menstruation normally occurs each month until a woman reaches menopause, which usually takes place in her late 40s or early 50s.  Menstruation subsides during pregnancy.

Complications

  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a mixture of symptoms that can begin about two weeks before a period starts.  PMS symptoms include those of menstruation, but they are more severe.  You should tell your doctor if you experience PMS because there are many treatments that can be helpful.
  • Endometriosis is an abnormal overgrowth of the endometrial tissue in the uterus.  Symptoms of endometriosis include pain, heavy periods, and bleeding between periods.  Endometriosis may be treated with hormone medications and surgery.  Untreated endometriosis can become severe and result in infertility.  Contact your doctor if you are experiencing abnormal pain, usually heavy periods, or excessive bleeding between periods.