Endometriosis is a chronic condition where cells similar to the ones found in the lining of your uterus are also in other places in your body. Each month, these cells react in the same way as the ones in your womb, building up and then breaking down and bleeding—but unlike the cells that leave the body as your period, this blood has no way to escape. Because of this process, women with endometriosis have severe pain, amongst a whole ton of other challenging symptoms.
Around 1.5 million women in the UK are currently living with endometriosis, but not all of them know it—and far too often, they're left suffering in silence. If you feel like your period pain is more than, well, period pain, here are five ways to tell if endometriosis might be to blame:
1. Pain is interfering with your day-to-day life.
It's a sad truth of being a woman that you'll probably experience some kind of cramping and soreness at certain points, but what's not okay is if it stops you from going about your business—in extreme cases, endometriosis pain can make you sick or even faint. "The NHS says that three in four women of young women experience strong period pains," explains Emma Cox of Endometriosis UK. "But the pain should not be so intense that you cannot still get up, go to school, college or work, and carry on with your normal life. If it is then you should speak to somebody."
2. You get pain in other areas of your body.
If you have endometriosis, your pain is unlikely to be limited to the areas you might expect, like your lower abdomen, hips and back. "While endometriosis usually occurs in the pelvic area, it can occur elsewhere such as the lungs and liver. It's even been found, on rare occasions, in the brain. That means that pain can occur in different places, and it will be different for each sufferer," Cox details. Finding yourself having really strong pains in areas that can't be explained? Endometriosis could be to behind them, and not just during that unfortunate time of the month.
3. You get pain throughout the month.
Endo pain is related to your hormonal cycle, but that doesn't mean that it'll only affect you one week out of four—in fact, for some women, their period is a relief, because their pain actually lessens at this time. Cox says, "Endometriosis may cause scar tissue, or be affecting organs or nerves, and so result in very regular pain." She suggests keeping a symptoms diary, so that you can keep track of when your pain is the strongest, and taking it to the doctors. Endometriosis is notoriously difficult to diagnose, so having as much info and research as possible can help them identify the cause of your symptoms and offer the right kind of treatment for your needs.
4. You have pain after sex.
"If endometriosis is on or near the vagina, it can result in painful sex (the medical term for this is dyspareunia)," adds Cox—and not only can it be the root cause of pain, it can also lead to you feeling tense and stressed about the situation, making your symptoms even worse than they would have been in the first place. Some women feel embarrassed to talk to their partner or their doctor about this, but it's important for both of them to know (although for very different reasons). Your doctor will be able to provide info on pain management and other techniques to help you maintain a healthy sex life, whilst your partner will be able to provide emotional support to keep your relationship healthy too.
5. Going to the toilet is painful.
Painful bowel movements are another one of the classic signifiers that most women with the condition will experience. You may end up going to the toilet really often, or not at all, and find that the actual process is really uncomfortable —some sufferers also see blood in the bowl after they go. It's not TMI or something to hide—if you're experiencing any of these symptoms, it's essential that you speak to your doctor so you can start getting the relief you need. There's no "cure" for endometriosis, but there are plenty of options—from hormone therapy to support groups—that can reduce your pain and stop it from taking over your life.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.