March 8th is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would write to the many women who have problems with their periods. It may be that you suffer with extremely heavy or painful periods or with premenstrual symptoms such as headaches and irritability – problems that mean you cannot function normally for up to one week in four. International Women’s Day is a good time to air the widely held view that there would be better Western medical treatment for such problems if women had more power and equality in the world! Meanwhile, the good news is that acupuncture can be very effective for many menstrual problems. Understanding and balancing out the daily, monthly and seasonal cycles of health are key features of Chinese medicine so that period problems are viewed as part of women’s general health rather than a separate ‘speciality’.
Painful periods are very common but the severity of the pain is often underestimated. It can lead women to take quite major action, such as taking the contraceptive pill without a break. In Chinese Medicine, pain is due to Qi (energy, lifeforce) or blood being blocked so that it doesn’t circulate smoothly through the womb and other parts of the body. When Qi is blocked, periods are often irregular as well as painful and this may be part of a more general ‘Qi stagnation’. In this situation, acupuncture to help the periods may relieve other symptoms such as digestive upsets, aching muscles or feelings of tension. Stagnation of Blood gives even more severe pain, often requiring a day in bed, and responds to acupuncture to move and strengthen the blood. Either of these may be combined with the womb getting affected by cold. In this situation I would warm the womb with Moxa as well as using acupuncture to move the Qi and blood – and encourage women to wear much warmer clothing over the belly.
Another common problem is very heavy periods. Not only is this difficult to manage at the time, especially if there are moments of real flooding, but it can lead to blood deficiency (or anaemia). There are several different reasons for heavy periods. So understanding the underlying cause depends on me spending a long time with you on the first appointment, to understand your health as a whole, including mind, body and spirit. For example, heavy periods may be due to too much heat in the body and once I have identified where this heat is coming from I can treat the underlying problem. This is common around the menopause, and may be due to overwork and/or emotional stress causing a lack of Yin – the cool, stable, calm part of our Qi. In this situation acupuncture would be accompanied by encouragement to rest and relax more, maybe taking time out for yourself rather than running round after other people. This is another issue that may be helpful and fun to discuss with your women friends. Even when doctors have diagnosed fibroids as a cause of your heavy periods, a longer course of acupuncture can reduce the amount of bleeding.
Perhaps the most misunderstood period-related problem is pre-menstrual syndrome. Because it often has a big emotional content – irritability, tearfulness, poor concentration – it is rarely taken seriously by those who do not experience it. Physical symptoms include breast tenderness, digestive and bowel upsets, and headaches or migraines. Any of these symptoms, especially when they are combined, cause a sudden dip in mental and physical functioning that can last up to a week. This time of the monthly cycle is when our Yang energy is rising – the hot, quick, fluctuating, distending part of our Qi. By finding out about you as whole person, I can understand the underlying cause for problems in this rising of Yang, and use acupuncture to not only regulate the extremes of this time period but also strengthen the underlying weakness and imbalance. It is likely that talking about it to me, and to your family and friends, you will also be able to reduce the stress is your life which will help you be more healthy in a general way. One feminist analysis of premenstrual syndrome is that during this part of the month we are expressing some true feelings that most of the time we repress, in order to be the person that society wants us to be.…. another topic for International Women’s Day!
In my experience as a general practitioner these are health problems that impact greatly on women’s lives but are difficult to treat using Western Medicine. Changes in your menstrual pattern should be discussed with your doctor to exclude serious disease such as cancer. However, these symptoms are rarely due to such a disease, so investigations are usually negative. This is reassuring but leaves you with no explanation or treatment. Sometimes, heavy or painful periods are so severe that you may be offered a hysterectomy – a major operation that most women wish to avoid. Alternatively, women learn to accept such symptoms as ‘normal’. Consequently period problems are rarely the main problems that women consult me about, but nevertheless they improve when another problem is treated by acupuncture that strengthens and balances the body and emotions. Maybe International Women’s Day is a good time to give priority to feeling better throughout the month. Start talking to your women friends about your period problems, share experiences and ways of helping yourselves, and consider trying some acupuncture treatment.