July 3, 2023

If menstrual cycles are affecting the ability to study or work, it’s time to get help for those period problems.

Generally speaking, it’s easy to dismiss period complaints as “growing pains” or an inevitable part of the pubertal transition. It is almost expected that menstrual periods during this time of great change should be irregular, painful and/or heavy. Of course, there is great variability based on the individual, with a wide range of what is considered medically normal. So how is a parent to know when period complaints are truly problematic enough to warrant seeking medical treatment? A few levels of period problems call for additional consideration.

Irregular periods

The average age of the first period in the United States is somewhere between 12 and 13, but there is a wide range of normal. Generally speaking, breast development before age 8, lack of breast development by 13 or no menstrual period by 16 years old could be abnormal and should be brought to the attention of a medical provider. Seeking care for early breast development, delay in breast development or late first menstrual period is important. Catching these rare conditions early prevents any other concerns from sprouting.

Establishing regular, monthly periods requires proper hormonal signaling from the brain to the ovaries and then the uterus. It is a complicated process that sometimes takes a little time to regulate, so it is not unusual for periods to be irregular for the first one to two years after the first period. However, even in the first couple of years, it is not normal to have periods three months or more apart. This could signal that the infrequent menstrual cycle pattern may persist long term and create more period issues — or a menstrual disorder. Frequent menstrual periods, periods less than three weeks apart, can also be problematic, especially if bleeding is heavy.

Heavy periods

Many teenagers have heavy periods, so where should you draw the line? A normal cycle includes seven total days of bleeding and up to 80 milliliters of total blood loss. This is extremely difficult to quantify, so we use other measures as warning signs for heavy bleeding. Bleeding that soaks through a regular or larger size pad or tampon in an hour for two hours in a row is evidence of further menstrual problems. Passing blood clots the size of a quarter or larger can indicate rapid bleeding that accumulates in the uterus before it passes all at once. Menstrual bleeding that leads to anemia, iron deficiency, hospitalization or transfusion should prompt a more in-depth evaluation.

A bleeding disorder is a condition that causes delayed or inadequate blood clot formation, resulting in prolonged bleeding. While bleeding disorders are not common in the general population, they can be more common in cases of particularly heavy menstrual bleeding. Prolonged menstrual bleeding more than seven days, passage of larger blood clots (quarter size or more) and rapid pad changes prove reason enough to test for a bleeding disorder. Other bleeding symptoms such as nosebleeds, gum bleeding and easy bruising or a family history of bleeding disorders should increase suspicion.

Von Willebrand’s disease, which affects the initiation of a blood clot and how platelets stick together, is the most common bleeding disorder. Someone with heavy menses may have other disorders such as platelet dysfunction and low levels of clotting factors.

Not every teenager with heavy or prolonged bleeding will warrant testing for a bleeding disorder or other period problems. But it is important to identify who needs testing and who has a true bleeding disorder. Early diagnosis can improve the treatment of heavy periods but also prepare patients for future situations that will require preventive treatment such as surgery and pregnancy.

Painful Periods

Menstrual periods during adolescence can be painful with cramps that start a few days before the cycle and continue through the early part of the cycle. Typically, menstrual cramps respond well to heating pads and exercise, as well as over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. Pain is considered abnormally severe if the painful period is associated with episodes of vomiting or is completely unimproved with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. If menstrual pain persists between menstrual cycles and causes more period problems, it could be an indicator of other more rare, benign conditions of the abdominal or pelvic organs such as an ovarian cyst or endometriosis. If period pain is causing missed school frequently, it is probably a good time for an evaluation.

When to seek help for period problems

While it is not unusual to have one or more problems related to their periods, it is important to identify when a medical evaluation can help. A pediatric-adolescent gynecologist or adolescent medicine specialist can provide evaluation and treatment for irregular, heavy or painful periods that meet the criteria for evaluation. If bleeding is heavy or prolonged, with or without other bleeding symptoms or family history, patients can be referred to the Women’s Bleeding Disorder Clinic.

Knowing specifically when period problems become truly problematic can help patients and parents decide when to seek care. However, anytime menstrual cycles affect the ability to study, work or participate, it is time to make an appointment to talk.

This post was written by Dr. Celeste Ojeda Hemingway and Dr. Allison Wheeler with Vanderbilt Women’s Health.

If you need help

The Vanderbilt’s Women’s Bleeding Disorder Clinic, a specialty clinic recognized by the Foundation for Women and Girls with Bleeding Disorders, is a collaborative practice for young women with bleeding disorders and menstrual problems. The clinic provides comprehensive diagnostic and treatment services for women affected by these conditions. These experts collaborate with patients and families to address menstrual concerns and provide a comprehensive plan to treat any non-menstrual bleeding. Click here to learn more.

Vanderbilt’s Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology Practice offers evidence-based gynecologic care for children and teenagers up to age 19. Young patients are evaluated and treated by full-scope, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists who have special interest and expertise in pediatric and adolescent patients. The youngest pediatric patients receive family-centered care in a positive atmosphere. Click here to learn more.