For years, I experienced excruciating pain whenever I had my period. I’d always thought that the cramps and backaches were “normal” and part of womanhood, even when they turned debilitating and left me unable to walk at times. After seeing multiple doctors, undergoing countless scans and taking increasingly stronger painkillers, I was finally correctly diagnosed with endometriosis – a chronic, progressive condition that affects an estimated 10 per cent of women globally. This is my story.
The first warning signs
When I was younger, I’d occasionally experience severe period cramps that had me breaking out in cold sweat. I never gave much thought about them, simply accepting that this was part and parcel of womanhood. Then, when I was around 18 years old, my period suddenly couldn’t stop. The usual five days of red turned into a week, which dragged into two months of non-stop bleeding. Looking back, I should have sought help sooner but I didn’t, simply because I was afraid. I had no idea what was happening with my body and talking about menstrual cycles felt like a taboo topic to a self-conscious teenager. I also figured that the bleeding would eventually stop.
I was wrong. In fact, the bleeding became worse. It was not only prolonged, but also grew increasingly heavier. I started to feel dizzy and lightheaded all the time, which was when I finally confided in my mum and saw a gynaecologist. He prescribed me with birth control pills and iron supplements. I left the clinic with no real diagnosis, except what my gynaecologist vaguely referred to as a “hormonal imbalance”. In hindsight, heavy and prolonged bleeding is a symptom of endometriosis.
The birth control pills treated the symptoms and I took them consistently for six months. All was well after I went off the pill, but this only lasted for the next two months. By the third month, the uncontrollable bleeding came back. I was then put on long-term birth control pills which I took monthly for around 10 years, until my husband and I decided to start trying for kids in early 2019 when I was 28.
I thought I’d sprained my back
My second experience going off the pill was smoother than the first time back in 2009. My cycle was quite regular and the cramps were manageable. I attributed this to a more active lifestyle, plus years of gaining healthy weight (which I needed). But by July 2019, the period pains worsened. I started experiencing lower back pain along with the cramps. I honestly thought that I had sprained or hurt my back because the pain coincided with a HIIT workout event that I attended. I brushed it off, thinking that I had just overstrained myself. When the pain didn’t subside even after a week, I sought help from a general practitioner (GP), who also said that it was probably just a minor back sprain. He gave me paracetamol and that was it.
Only, it wasn’t. The back pain never went away – in fact, it started getting more and more unbearable. I also noticed that the pain flared up specifically during my period, and would get so bad that I started limping during flares. I sought a second opinion from another GP. He told me that women’s bodies experience heightened levels of inflammation during our periods, which was likely causing the back pain. I accepted this explanation and left the clinic with stronger, prescription-level painkillers.
What is endometriosis and why does it hurt?
Endometriosis is a chronic, progressive condition where the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it. This tissue – also called endometrium – responds to hormonal changes in your body the same way that those inside your uterus do. However, unlike normal endometrium that gets shed during periods, these rogue tissues do not have any way of leaving the body. Instead, they build up, bleed, and release inflammatory chemicals throughout your cycle. Over time, this can result in scar tissue, nodules, or even adhesions where your organs start sticking together.
Unsurprisingly, the most common endometriosis symptom is painful periods. In a local study, over 80 per cent of patients experienced some degree of pain, and almost 25 per cent missed work or school because of it. Other symptoms include heavy menstrual bleeding, backache, rectal pain and fertility issues.