Gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter argues that they’re actually more painful than heart attacks, and we shouldn’t compare the two things together.
Writing on her blog about it, she approaches the issue first by dispelling the idea that heart attacks are always painful.
If you are waiting for terrible, excruciating chest pain to tell you that you are having a heart attack, well, you are going to miss the heart attack. Heart attacks often produce vague symptoms or mild pain, that is why many people ignore them.
Many people think they are having indigestion. In addition, more than 40 per cent of women have no pain with heart attacks. It would be dangerous for women to think that a heart attack should be at least as bad as their menstrual cramps.
The NHS confirms this, citing a US study that found there are a proportion of men and women who do not experience chest pain or discomfort during a heart attack, and that women are less likely to experience chest pain than men.
That is not to say chest pain doesn’t occur, only that there is a broad spectrum of symptoms.
Dr Gunter says the reason for this misunderstanding is that “visceral pain” is actually a very complex thing.
The name given to painful periods is primary dysmenorrhea, and affects about half of women. A group of lipid compounds called prostaglandins are released from the lining of the uterus during menstruation: they cause painful uterine contractions and increase pain signalling.
They also cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea in 60 per cent of women.
So if you need an analogy to describe period pain use labour or cutting your finger off without an anesthetic. A heart attack is often not painful or only mildly painful, especially for women, so for me that analogy just doesn’t cut it.