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:: This column was originally posted on Endometriosis News ::

One of the main things non-sufferers tend to misunderstand about endometriosis, is that it isn’t just a “bad period”. Many of us have spoken out about the pain we are in due to endometriosis, only to receive a response such as “Oh yeah, I get really bad periods too! Have you tried taking paracetamol for it?”. It can become very frustrating when you are trying to help people understand what life is like with this chronic illness.

So, is endometriosis a “bad period”? Let’s have a look at some facts.

What is a period?
Menstruation, or a period, is defined by Planned Parenthood as “when blood and tissue from your uterus come out of your vagina”. Each month, the lining of the uterus (endometrium) thickens in preparation for a fertilised egg. With a fertilised egg, a baby will develop in the uterus. Without fertilisation, the lining is released from the body through the vagina as a period.

Menstruation usually happens once a month, in females between the ages of 12-52 (on average). In this time you will have around 480 periods, or fewer if you have any pregnancies.

Periods themselves do not hurt, however some women can have cramps and other symptoms that can make it uncomfortable. This is due to the hormones that are released during a period which cause the uterus to contract, enabling it to shed its lining.

What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a painful, chronic, gynaecological disease. It occurs when tissue similar to that which lines the uterus is found growing outside of the womb, usually in the pelvis (although it can be found elsewhere in the body), and develops in to growths or lesions.

Endometriosis cells react in the same way to a period, except these cells are located outside of the womb. During a woman’s monthly cycle, hormones stimulate the endometriosis. This causes it to grow, then break down and bleed. This internal bleeding, unlike a period, has no way of leaving the body. This results in a build up of inflammation and scarring.

The inflammation can cause various organs to become matted together in a web of scar tissue (adhesions). These can cause chronic pain and may interfere with the normal function of organs, such as the bowel, bladder or ovaries.

Endometrial tissue can also form cysts on the ovaries. Some cysts, known as ‘functional’ cysts, may not cause any problems. Another form of cysts, known as ‘endometrioma’ or ‘chocolate’ cysts (so-called due to their appearance), can cause intense pain. If these types of cysts rupture, the contents of the cyst can spill out into the pelvic cavity leading to more adhesions.

What are the key differences between periods and endometriosis?
:: Periods are a natural process that all women will experience as their bodies physically mature. Endometriosis is a gynaecological disease affecting an estimated 1 in 10 women.
:: Periods typically last from 3-8 days and are usually regular. Most women will only lose between 5-12 teaspoons of blood. With endometriosis, periods can be irregular, last far longer and be extremely heavy. Some women bleed between periods or constantly.
:: Periods can cause some pain, but this can usually be relieved with painkillers, a heat pad or light exercise. Women with endometriosis describe their pain as persistent. It usually correlates with the menstrual cycle, however, pain may also be experienced at other times during your cycle including during or after sex, internal examinations, ovulation and bladder/bowel movements.
:: When your period is finished, any discomfort will go. Endometriosis is described as a chronic illness as it lasts a long time. It can cause problems every day of your reproductive life and continue to do so after menopause.
:: Period pain shouldn’t interfere with your daily life. Endometriosis pain can be so severe that women can feel nauseous and faint. For some, the pain can be debilitating, making even the simplest of tasks near impossible.
:: Period pain is usually limited to the lower abdomen, hips and back. Since endometriosis can occur in any area of the body from the vulva to the brain, pain will be felt in a more widespread area.
:: Periods themselves do not cause any complications. Endometriosis can cause infertility, bowel/ureteral obstruction, peritonitis from bowel perforation, an increased risk of cancer (particularly ovarian cancer) and an increased risk of miscarriage or premature birth.

Endometriosis is an all-encompassing disease that can affect every part of your life. It is so much more than just a “bad period”.

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