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Understanding the long-term effects of period pain

Last updated

05/04/22

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A new Medical Research Foundation-funded study, led by the University of Oxford, will investigate whether painful periods as a teenager can predict the development of chronic pain conditions later in life.

Period pain, although often dismissed, is so common and has a huge impact on the lives of teenagers. We hope this work will provide further support for the need to take it seriously and treat it promptly as well as ultimately reducing the number of women suffering with chronic pain.
Dr Katy Vincent
University of Oxford

Chronic pain, which affects up to 30 per cent of people worldwide, is defined as ‘chronic’ when pain lasts for more than three months. Once developed, chronic pain is difficult to treat, so understanding who is most at risk is vital for improving prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment.

Previous research has shown that women are more likely to develop almost all types of chronic pain than men, and these differences become apparent after puberty, suggesting changes in puberty - such as periods starting - may be contributing to this increased risk.

Despite periods often being very painful, period pain has traditionally been dismissed as ‘normal’ and something girls must “learn to live with”. However, in adult women with period pain, researchers have noted many differences across a range of body systems, that are similar to changes seen with other chronic pain.

These changes include increased sensitivity to pain, increased sensitivity of the bladder, bowel and womb, and altered brain structure, function and stress responses. It is not yet known if these changes are caused by repeated or continuous pain, or if they are part of the reason why chronic pain develops, or a combination of both.

The Advanced Pain Discovery Platform (APDP) is jointly funded by the Medical Research Foundation, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Versus Arthritis, and Eli Lilly, with the aim of progressing our knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms underlying pain.

As part of this initiative, Dr Katy Vincent from the University of Oxford will lead a new research project to determine whether period pain during adolescence increases the risk of developing chronic pain as a young woman. This research could lead to new strategies aimed at preventing and treating chronic pain in the future.

Using the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) – a large research resource monitoring children born in the early 1990s – Dr Vincent and her team will assess the prevalence of chronic pain and painful periods and determine if there are any factors present in childhood, including genetics and maternal health, that increase the risk of period pain developing. Researchers will also recruit a group of adolescent girls, including those with and without period pain, one, three and five years after starting their periods, to understand more about their body systems and pain.

By understanding the long-term risks of period pain, researchers are aiming to ensure it is taken more seriously, as well as producing advice and guidance for those with period pain, health professionals, policy makers and educators.

A better understanding of the risk factors for developing period pain will enable healthcare professionals to identify girls at risk, ensuring they are educated and empowered to seek treatment early. This in turn could reduce the risk of both adolescent girls and adult women suffering with period pain and other chronic pain conditions.

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Dr Katy Vincent

Dr Vincent said:

“We are really excited to be able to undertake this research. Period pain, although often dismissed, is so common and has a huge impact on the lives of teenagers. We hope this work will provide further support for the need to take it seriously and treat it promptly as well as ultimately reducing the number of women suffering with chronic pain”.

If you would like to hear directly from Dr Vincent and find out more about the APDP consortium, register for the Advanced Pain Discovery Platform Public Launch Webinar on 9 May 2022.

The Foundation is continuing to invest in pain research and new funding will be made available in child and adolescent cancer pain in spring 2022.