The seemingly unbearable abdominal pain, an aching back, and curling over the toilet feeling nauseated, is a scene all too common for some women every month. Whether women experience mild discomfort or severe menstrual cramps, the effects of period pain are greater than we think. According to a recent study published in the journal Pain, menstrual cramps not only go beyond the sensory experience, they affect how women think and feel, and can therefore reduce cognitive performance.

“Pain is an extremely common experience and can have a disruptive effect on all our daily lives,” said Dr. Ed Keogh, lead author of the study from the University of Bath Department of Psychology, according to Medical Xpress. “Our research looked at how common everyday pain, experienced by many women each month, affects their ability to perform a range of complex tasks.” Keogh and his colleagues believe menstrual cramps cause regular suffering for many women and that its effects are often overlooked and poorly understood.

The team of researchers at the University of Bath, who claim their study is the first of its kind to look at the effects of period pains on cognitive performance, recruited a small cohort of 52 healthy adult women to test their hypothesis. Although there is an amount of growing literature that indicates attentional interference occurs across different types of pain, including common painful episodes, the researchers sought to find whether menstrual cramps have a noticeably negative effect on women’s ability to perform tasks. The female participants were tested during two different phase of their menstrual cycle — once during a nonpain phase (mid follicular), and once while experiencing menstrual pain (late luteal/early follicular). They were also asked to complete computer-based tasks that evaluated different aspects of attention, simultaneously, as women were experiencing period pain.

At each testing session, participants received a battery of four attentional interference tasks that measured selective attention (being able to choose between competing targets), attention span (monitoring and updating information), and dividing and switching attention between two tasks. Overall, the tests measured the women’s ability to choose between competing tasks, attention spans, and their ability to switch their attention between two tasks.

The findings revealed period pain reduced overall performance. When women had period pains, they were found to have a lower performance rating in general as they struggled with attention-based jobs such competing targets and dividing their attention between two tasks. Pain’s effects on attentional interference were greater during the menstrual pain phase compared to the nonpain phase. This led to a general worsening in performance such as slowing or being less accurate, rather than a special attentional deficit.

“I think the most interesting thing that we found is that this sort of common, everyday pain does have an effect on performance,” said Keogh, The Telegraph reported. “If you understand what effects they have then you can try and do something about it,” he said. “We can do more research and look at how common is it? What about everyday tasks? How do people actually cope with it?”

The study highlights the need to develop better ways of measuring the effects of pain in our everyday lives. We can focus on developing strategies to help people remove the effects of pain on performance and repair attention when exposed to frequent pain.

Women have developed coping strategies with their period pain by using natural remedies such as taking warm showers or baths, says Medline Plus, or applying a heating pad to the lower belly area, below the belly button. These self-care measures allow many women to alleviate the pain, without relying on prescription medications. However, women are advised to call their doctor if their pain occurs at times other than menstruation, begins more than five days before your period, or continues after your period is over.

Women are more likely to experience period pain, or dysmenorrhea, in their teens and twenties, as it affects 20 to 90 percent of adolescent women, according to American Family Physician. Dysmenorrhea is the leading cause of recurrent short-term school absenteeism in adolescent girls in the U.S. To effectively reduce menstrual cramps, it’s important to diagnose the cause of the pain to find the best available treatment.

 

Source: Cavill R, Eccleston C, Keogh E, Moore DJ. The effects of menstrual-related pain on attentional interference. Pain. 2014.