Emma Lea Wall’s period pain makes her legs go numb. During her first year at UT, Wall stayed in her dorm, missing classes and career events because of the pain.
When she described her pain to professors — sharp pinches in her abdomen, ripping sensations — she said some insinuated she was overreacting. Their attitudes only changed slightly when Wall had to visit the emergency room and later have surgery in June to test for endometriosis.
“People do seem to be a bit more understanding, but if I didn't have those concrete examples, I think people would be more prone to be disbelieving of my pain,” marketing sophomore Wall said.
With online classes, students with severe pain have more options for managing pain and attending lectures. When Wall has period pain, she said she can either sit with her heating pad and her laptop or watch recorded lectures later.
More than half of people who menstruate experience pain for one to two days per month, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Wall’s period pain, however, stems from endometriosis, a condition that impacts one in 10 people who menstruate.
Endometriosis is when uterine lining appears outside of the uterus, said Barbara Blizzard, chief of women’s health for University Health Services. The condition, which can only be diagnosed through surgery, can bring anything from no symptoms to extreme menstrual cramps that interfere with daily life.
Blizzard said the two main treatment options for period pain are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen and hormonal contraception. There is no cure.
“It's like a lot of other conditions where you try to work with the symptoms, find out what works the best,” Blizzard said. “But we can't suddenly say, ‘OK, that's it for you. Here's your treatment, and you're done.’”
Because it is difficult to get an endometriosis diagnosis, many begin treatment without one.
Emily Wright, an English education senior at the University of Arkansas, began taking a hormonal contraceptive pill, but it didn’t remedy her period pain, which causes vomiting on a monthly basis. She eventually started using the pill to skip her periods in addition to taking painkillers.
In June, her doctor suggested combining an intrauterine device with a hormonal contraceptive pill to cope with the pain and prevent bleeding between periods. Wright expected some discomfort, but when she arrived home from the doctor after receiving her IUD, she rushed to her bathroom and blacked out from intense pain.
She woke up crying, shaking and drenched in sweat. The IUD had to be removed less than 24 hours later.
Wright’s doctor screened her for endometriosis via ultrasound, but she tested negative. She said she felt relieved, knowing the complications the condition brings. However, Wright also felt defeated.
“I really wanted answers,” Wright said. “I was just hoping for some sort of explanation.”
Karla Nuñez, who graduated from Texas Woman’s University in May, faints from her period pain. Her doctor suggested hormonal contraception, but there were potential side effects that could worsen her depression and anxiety. When choosing between treating mental illness or severe pain, Nuñez chose the latter.
During her period, Nuñez takes seven to eight painkillers daily and positions her body on all fours to relieve pressure from her uterus. With online classes, Nuñez could turn off her camera and contort her body while learning. Wright said she does the same.
“The fact that I can have my camera off and my microphone off, that allows me to lie in bed and be miserable or sit next to the toilet without my peers really realizing what's going on,” Wright said.