Women with painful periods show increased sensitivity to pain throughout their cycles, even when there is no background period pain.
The brain imaging study carried out at Oxford University shows that period pain is associated with differences in the way the brain processes pain, and that these differences persist throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Their brain’s responses to this painful stimulus were compared at three different points in the women’s menstrual cycles.
The team found that the group of women with painful periods were more sensitive to the hot pads – the pads didn’t have to be turned up as far to get the same reports of pain.
The brain imaging data revealed that women who experience period pain showed changes in activity in brain areas known to be involved in the pain response.
Importantly, differences in the way the brain processed the pain from the hot pads continued to be seen at times in their menstrual cycles when there was no period pain. This suggests there may be longer-lasting changes to the experience of pain and discomfort. These changes in sensitivity and processing of pain are similar to what is seen in patients with chronic pain conditions.
Also in common with chronic pain conditions, the researchers saw significantly lower levels of cortisol, a hormone connected to the body’s stress response. These low levels persisted throughout the women’s menstrual cycles and were correlated with the length of time women had experienced period pain.
Many of the features of chronic pain conditions are present in women with painful periods, even though the pain is experienced for just a few days every month
Dr Katy Vincent