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Six things you may not know about your periods

Even well-informed women have questions about their menstrual cycle. Here are answers to the most common questions encountered by gynaecologists.
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

The curse, having the painters in or getting a visit from Aunt Flo, there are plenty of euphemisms for being on your period. It can be a tricky issue to talk about, even with your friends.

You may have been getting your period for decades or might just be starting out down the long road of menstruation but however well you know your body there may be things that you aren't entirely sure of.

1. Why do I get PMS?

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) - sometimes called premenstrual tension (PMT) - happens in the 2 weeks before your period starts. It's thought to occur because your levels of the hormones progesterone and oestrogen are changing.

"It's caused by the impact of hormonal fluctuations on the body and mind in women who have a genetic susceptibility and there is often a family history," says Mr Nick Panay, consultant gynaecologist at Queen Charlotte's & Chelsea and Chelsea & Westminster Hospitals.

Symptoms vary and include mood swings, irritability, breast tenderness and water retention. Most women live with the symptoms and come to expect them every month.

It's thought PMS can be helped by a healthy diet and physical exercise. Stress and a lack of sleep may make symptoms worse.

Your GP will be able to help treat PMS. Painkillers and hormone medications may be recommended, and some women's PMS symptoms get much better when they take the contraceptive pill.

There are complementary remedies that are used by some people to help with PMS, for example, evening primrose oil. Agnus castus is an example of a registered traditional herbal remedy used for the relief of the symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome.

However, evidence is lacking for the benefits of many complementary therapies and supplements.

Supplements of calcium, vitamin B6, and magnesium may also be beneficial but it’s important to seek medical advice before taking these for PMS.

Some women try acupuncture, magnet therapy and massage for PMS, but again, evidence is not strong for these therapies.

Not every woman gets PMS, but most get some degree of PMS. It’s estimated that around 1 in 20 have very severe symptoms - called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) - that stop them living a normal life.

2. Is my cycle normal?

A regular cycle doesn't have to be every 28 days. That's just the average length.

"It may be as short as 21 days or up to 36 days but most women who are ovulating will have a period between 26 and 32 days", says Mr Peter Bowen-Simpkins, consultant gynaecologist and medical director of the London Women's Clinic.

He says: " Ovulation occurs 14 days before the onset of a period, therefore a woman with a 34 day cycle will produce an egg on day 20 of her cycle. Regular cycles almost always indicate that ovulation has taken place. Conversely very irregular or infrequent periods suggest that you are not ovulating."

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