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Menstruation is the shedding of the uterine lining (endometrium). It occurs on a regular basis at a very young age, maturation, in females of certain mammal species, until menopause. This article focuses on human menstruation.
Regular menstruation (also called eumenorrhea) lasts for a few days, usually 3 to 5 days, but anywhere from 2 to 8 days is considered normal. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long from the first day of one menstrual period to the first day of the next. A normal menstrual cycle is typically between 21 and 35 days between menstrual periods.:p.381 The premenstrual time period is termed molimina and symptoms (other than bleeding) preceding menstruation are termed moliminal.
The average volume of menstrual fluid during a monthly menstrual period is 35 milliliters (2.4 tablespoons of menstrual fluid) with 10–80 milliliters (1 - 6 tablespoons of menstrual fluid) considered typical. Menstrual fluid is the correct name for the menstrual flow, although many people prefer to refer to it as menstrual blood. Menstrual fluid in fact contains some blood, as well as cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue. Menstrual fluid is reddish-brown, a slightly darker colour than blood.:p.381
Many women also notice blood clots or shedding of their uterus's endometrium lining during menstruation. These appear as small pieces of tissue mixed with the blood. Pieces of endometrial tissue are easy to confuse with menstrual clots and a specimen test can confirm which you have. Sometimes menstrual clots or shed endometrial tissue is incorrectly thought to indicate an early-term miscarriage of an embryo. An enzyme called plasmin — contained in the endometrium – tends to inhibit the blood from clotting.
The amount of iron lost via menstrual fluid is relatively insignificant for most women. In one study, premenopausal women who exhibited symptoms of iron deficiency were given endoscopies. 86% of them actually had gastrointestinal disease and were at risk of being misdiagnosed simply because they were menstruating.
The first experience of a menstrual period during puberty is called menarche. The average age of menarche is 13, but menarche can typically occur between ages 8 and 18.Premature or delayed menarche should be investigated, ie before 10 yrs or after 16 years.:p.381 Perimenopause is when fertility in a female declines, and menstruation may occur infrequently in the years leading up to menopause, when a female stops menstruating completely and is no longer fertile. Menopause typically occurs between the late 40s and 50s:p.381 in Western countries.
In most females, various physical changes are brought about by natural fluctuations in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle, and by muscle contractions (menstrual cramping) involving the uterus that can precede or accompany menstruation. Some may notice water retention, changes in sex drive, fatigue, breast tenderness, or nausea. Breast swelling and discomfort may be caused by water retention during menstruation. Usually, such sensations are mild, and some people notice very few physical changes associated with menstruation. A healthy diet, reduced consumption of salt, caffeine and alcohol, and regular exercise are often effective in controlling these physical changes. The sensations experienced vary from person to person and from cycle to cycle.
Many women experience painful uterine cramps during menstruation. The muscles of the uterus, and abdominal muscles surrounding the uterus, contract spasmodically to push the menstrual fluid out of the uterus. The contractions are produced by the tissue lining the uterus, which is believed to release an excess of fatty acids called prostaglandins that stimulate the muscles, leading to contractions. This is called primary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea usually begins within a year or two of menarche. It may continue until menopause, but many people find that their symptoms of dysmenorrhea gradually subside after their mid-20s. If the pain occurs between menstrual periods, or lasts longer than the first few days of the period, it is called secondary dysmenorrhea.:p.379
Symptoms of dysmenorrhea may become debilitating in some people. It is unknown why this occurs in some people and not others. Severe symptoms may include pain spreading to hips, lower back and thighs, nausea and frequent diarrhea or constipation. Treatments target excess prostaglandin, using anti-prostaglandin medications or oral contraceptives. Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as over-the-counter ibuprofen and naproxen, may ease symptoms.:p.379
Some women experience emotional disturbances associated with their menstruation. These range from the irritability, to tiredness, or "weepiness" (i.e. easily provoked tearfulness). A similar range of emotional effects and mood swings is associated with pregnancy. The prevalence of PMS is estimated to be between 3% and 30%. More severe symptoms of anxiety or depression may be signs of Premenstrual Syndrome. Rarely, in individuals susceptible to psychotic episodes, menstruation may be a trigger (menstrual psychosis).
In some cases, stronger physical and emotional or psychological sensations may become debilitating, and include significant menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea), migraine headaches, and severe depression. Dysmenorrhea, or severe uterine pain, is particularly common for adolescents and young females (one study found that 67.2% of girls aged 13–19 suffer from it). This phenomenon is called Premenstrual Syndrome. More severe symptoms may be classified as Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).
There is a wide spectrum of differences between how people may experience menstruation. What may indicate a more serious physical problem for one person, may be quite normal for another. There are several ways that a person's menstrual cycle can differ from the norm, any of which should be discussed with a doctor to identify the underlying cause:
|Short or extremely light periods||Hypomenorrhea|
|Too-frequent periods (defined as more frequently than every 21 days)||Polymenorrhea|
|Extremely heavy or long periods (one guideline is soaking a sanitary napkin or tampon every hour or so, or menstruating for longer than 7 days)||Hypermenorrhea|
|Extremely painful periods||Dysmenorrhea|
|Breakthrough bleeding (also called spotting) between periods; normal in many people||Metrorrhagia|
Dysfunctional uterine bleeding is a hormonally caused bleeding abnormality. Dysfunctional uterine bleeding typically occurs in premenopausal females who do not ovulate normally (i.e. are anovulatory). All these bleeding abnormalities need medical attention; they may indicate hormone imbalances, uterine fibroids, or other problems. As pregnant women may bleed, a pregnancy test forms part of the evaluation of abnormal bleeding.
Sexual intercourse during menstruation does not cause damage in of itself, but the woman's body is more vulnerable during this time. Vaginal pH is higher and less acidic than normal, the cervix is lower in its position, the cervical opening is more dilated, and the uterine endometrial lining is absent, thus allowing organisms direct access to the blood stream through the numerous blood vessels that nourish the uterus. All these conditions increase the chance of infection and STD transmission during menstruation.
Sexual intercourse may also shorten the menstrual period. Some sources say that achieving orgasm helps the uterus to contract and expel the lining. However, it is more likely that because semen contains luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and the vagina easily absorbs these hormones, the woman's hormone balance is slightly offset and the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle begins earlier. Similarly, levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine devices and oral birth control pills alter the default hormone-release cycle, although by different mechanisms such as maintaining a high progestin level throughout a woman's cycle.
Menstruation is the most visible phase of the menstrual cycle, and corresponds closely with the hormonal cycle, and is therefore used as the limit between cycles; Menstrual cycles are counted from the first day of menstrual bleeding, a point in time commonly termed last menstrual period (LMP). The time from LMP until ovulation is, on average, 14.6 days, but with substantial variation both between people and between cycles in any single person, with an overall 95% prediction interval of 8.2 to 20.5 days.
During pregnancy and for some time after childbirth, menstruation is normally suspended; this state is known as amenorrhoea, i.e. absence of the menstrual cycle. If menstruation has not resumed, fertility is low during lactation. The average length of postpartum amenorrhoea is longer when certain breastfeeding practices are followed; this may be done intentionally as birth control.
Since the late 1960s, many women have chosen to control the frequency of menstruation with long-acting hormonal birth control, often simply called 'the pill'. They are most often combined hormone pills containing estrogen and are taken in 28 day cycles, 21 hormonal pills with either a 7 day break from pills, or 7 placebo pills during which the person menstruates. Hormonal contraception acts by using low doses of hormones to prevent ovulation, and thus prevent conception in sexually active females. But by using placebo pills for a 7-day span during the month, a regular bleeding period is still experienced.
Using synthetic hormones, it is possible for a person to completely eliminate menstrual periods. When using progestogen implants, menstruation may be reduced to 3 or 4 menstrual periods per year. By taking progestogen-only contraceptive pills (sometimes called the 'mini-pill') continuously without a 7-day span of using placebo pills, the menstrual period is eliminated entirely. Some people do this simply for convenience in the short-term, while others prefer to eliminate periods altogether when possible.
Some people use hormonal contraception in this way to eliminate their periods for months or years at a time, a practise called menstrual suppression. When the first birth control pill was being developed, the researchers were aware that they could use the contraceptive to space menstrual periods up to 90 days apart, but they settled on a 28-day cycle that would mimic a natural menstrual cycle and produce monthly periods. The intention behind this decision was the hope of the inventor, John Rock, to win approval for his invention from the Roman Catholic Church. That attempt failed, but the 28-day cycle remained the standard when the pill became available to the public. There is debate among medical researchers about the potential long-term impacts of these practises upon female health. Some researchers point to the fact that historically, females have had far fewer menstrual periods throughout their lifetimes, a result of shorter life expectancies, as well as a greater length of time spent pregnant or breast-feeding, which reduced the number of periods experienced by females. These researchers believe that the higher number of menstrual periods experienced by females in modern societies may have a negative impact upon their health. On the other hand, some researchers believe there is a greater potential for negative impacts from exposing females perhaps unnecessarily to regular low doses of synthetic hormones over their reproductive years.
Most people use something to absorb or catch their menses. There are a number of different methods available.
In addition to products to contain the menstrual flow, pharmaceutical companies likewise provide products – commonly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — to relieve menstrual cramps. Some herbs, such as dong quai, raspberry leaf and crampbark, are also claimed to relieve menstrual pain; however there is no documented scientific evidence to prove this.
Many religions have menstruation-related traditions. These may be bans on certain actions during menstruation (such as sexual intercourse in some movements of Judaism and Islam), or rituals to be performed at the end of each menses (such as the mikvah in Judaism and the ghusl in Islam). Some traditional societies sequester females in residences called "menstrual huts" that are reserved for that exclusive purpose.
In Hinduism, it is also frowned upon to go to a temple and do pooja (i.e., prayer) or do pooja at religious events if you are a woman who is menstruating. Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, is associated with menstruation; the literal translation of her name is "flow – woman". Metaformic Theory, as proposed by cultural theorist Judy Grahn and others, places menstruation as a central organizing idea in the creation of culture and the formation of humans' earliest rituals.
All female placental mammals have a uterine lining that builds up when the animal is fertile, but is dismantled when the animal is infertile. Most female mammals have an estrous cycle, yet only primates (including humans) have a menstrual cycle. Some anthropologists have questioned the energy cost of rebuilding the endometrium every fertility cycle. However, anthropologist Beverly Strassmann has proposed that the energy savings of not having to continuously maintain the uterine lining more than offsets energy cost of having to rebuild the lining in the next fertility cycle, even in species such as humans where much of the lining is lost through bleeding (overt menstruation) rather than reabsorbed (covert menstruation).
Many have questioned the evolution of overt menstruation in humans and related species, speculating on what advantage there could be to losing blood associated with dismantling the endometrium rather than absorbing it, as most mammals do. Humans do, in fact, reabsorb about two-thirds of the endometrium each cycle. Strassmann asserts that overt menstruation occurs not because it is beneficial in itself. Rather, the fetal development of these species requires a more developed endometrium, one which is too thick to reabsorb completely. Strassman correlates species that have overt menstruation to those that have a large uterus relative to the adult female body size.
Beginning in 1971, some research suggested that menstrual cycles of co-habiting human females became synchronized. A few anthropologists hypothesized that in hunter-gatherer societies, males would go on hunting journeys whilst the females of the tribe were menstruating, speculating that the females would not have been as receptive to sexual relations while menstruating. However, there is currently significant dispute as to whether menstrual synchrony exists.