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Catamenial Catastrophes: The Worst Things That Can Happen At the Start of Your Period

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Catamenial Catastrophes: The Worst Things That Can Happen At the Start of Your Period

Apr 14, 2016

Some women just “feel a little different” around the beginning of their menstrual cycle. This is called a catamenial symptom. These symptoms can include everything from cramping to headaches to acne to anxiety and are caused by changes in the hormone and biochemical levels in a woman’s body. But in some rare cases, this monthly change in body chemistry can cause severe and potentially dangerous reactions. Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones describes some of the more catastrophic things women experience during their cycle, what causes them and when to make an appointment with your doctor.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: All of us who've had menstrual periods know that we feel a little different in our bodies in the days around the start of our periods. We have what is called catamenial symptoms, symptoms around the period, but sometimes something big happens. This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from of obstetrics and gynecology at University Health Care and we're talking about catamenial catastrophes today on The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is the Seven Domains of Women Health, with Dr. Kirtly Jones, on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: The hormonal events at the start of the period are a big deal. Estrogen and progesterone levels made by the cyst that created the egg for that month were high the week before the period. If no pregnancy happens, these hormones drop rather quickly and that signals the uterus to make prostaglandins, a chemical that causes the uterus and the blood vessels in the uterus to contract and that starts the period.

These are normal and natural events, but they may cause cramping and occasionally nausea and vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes even fainting. But for some women with other medical problems, the drop in hormones and the rise in prostaglandins can exacerbate other conditions. Asthma and seasonal allergies can get worse. Some skin conditions, including eczema and hives can get worse around the pre-menstrual time.

But I use the word catamenial catastrophe and I made up that term, for things that can really go wrong and here are a few. Catamenial migraine, now this is really pretty common. About 15% of women have migraine and many of those women have predictable migraine with their periods. Catamenial migraine may be triggered by the change in hormones, or it may be the prostaglandins. For some women, it's the only time they have migraine. Migraine is one of those headache conditions that tendsto get better after menopause. No more periods, but for migrainers, that's the name of someone with a migraine, the monthly migraine can be very disruptive.

Catamenial epilepsy, seizures that occur just before or on the first day of the period. This happens to women who usually already have a seizure disorder, but they predictively have seizures about the time of their period. There are some women whose seizures start in adolescence when their period started, and some people have all of their seizures controlled with medications, but just not the ones that happen when they have their period.

Catamenial pneumothorax, this is a biggie. A pneumothorax is when there's a hole in the surface lining of the lung that lets air out underneath the ribs. With each breath, the air is trapped, making the lung get squished smaller and smaller. We're not exactly sure why this happens, but it can be associated with endometriosis on the surface of the lung that bleeds when the period starts and makes a hole for the air to leak out. Compared to the first two catastrophes, this one is rare and it can really be a catastrophe, requiring medical intervention to get the air or blood that's compressing the lung. Rare means about one in 100,000 women per year and that's really pretty rare.

Catamenial anaphylaxis, now, anaphylaxis is an acute reaction that is usually allergic that can cause hives, itching, swollen airways and difficulty breathing, low blood pressure and fainting. Catamenial anaphylaxis is really rare and it isn't probably an allergic reaction, but it is a reaction to the prostaglandins made by the uterus, which is also made in the ordinary kind of anaphylaxis. This is so rare, it hasn't been studied much.

If you think you have a big problem associated with your periods, who should you see? Your doctor who's helping you with your migraine, seizures, pneumothorax or anaphylaxis should consult with an OBGYN, preferably a reproductive endocrinologist, omeone who specializes in women's hormones. Together, they can figure out if it's really consistently related to the periods. Often, women say, "Oh yes, it happens before my periods and during my periods and after my periods."

For women with a 28-day cycle, that means it happens all the time so that's not really period-related. In some cases, it's appropriate to stop the periods and there are several hormonal ways of doing this. The good news is that once the connection is made between the period and the catastrophe, there are a number of options available. It makes cramps and crabbiness seem not so bad, huh? It makes the menopause sound better and better every day.

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