What can be done to help heavy periods?

A blog by Lynda Ware, Senior Fellow in General Practice with Cochrane UK, for non-medical readers, on treatment choices for women with heavy periods.

A shocking newspaper article

A few months ago a newspaper headline caught my eye:

‘Nepal’s bleeding shame: menstruating women banished to cattle sheds’

The article described a centuries-old custom, still practised in Nepal, of confining women to a cowshed or outbuilding during their period. This ingrained cultural practice called chaupadi (which translates as ‘untouchable being’) considers menstrual loss to be ‘impure’ and places severe restrictions on what women can eat, where they can go and with whom they can interact. The damage to women – both physical and psychological – is huge and efforts are being made to outlaw the behaviour.

A month before this piece was written, a Cochrane review was published looking at Surgery versus medical therapy for heavy menstrual bleeding. It occurred to me that this highlighted the very different world in which we live.

How heavy is heavy?

Now here’s the rub. What constitutes an unacceptably heavy period is very subjective. Medical wisdom defines heavy menstrual bleeding (or menorrhagia, to give it its medical name) as a loss of 80ml or more per menstrual cycle. When menstrual blood is measured (and it can be!) only about half of the women attending gynaecology clinics with a complaint of heavy periods are losing 80ml or more. A survey of menstruating women conducted in 2004 in the UK found that the self-reported incidence of menorrhagia was 25%. It is estimated that 5% of otherwise healthy women consult their GP complaining of heavy periods.

Heavy menstrual bleeding can significantly impair quality of life. It can of course cause anaemia and incurs a not insubstantial financial cost in terms of sanitary items and lost days at work if severe.

What is available to help?

A number of medical and surgical options are available to help lessen menstrual bleeding.

Medical interventions

First-line treatment for menorrhagia is usually medical and includes:

Levonorgesterel-intrauterine device (LNG-IUS). This is inserted into the womb and lasts for up to five years. It releases a low level of levonorgestrel (a progesterogenic hormone) which has the effect of suppressing the lining of the womb (endometrium). It has been reported to reduce menstrual loss by 94% in three months. It has the added advantage of being a highly effective contraceptive. However, it commonly causes irregular bleeding in the first few months of use and some women experience hormonal side effects such as weight gain and bloating.

Anti-fibrinolytic drugs such as tranexamic acid inhibit the breakdown of blood clots and can reduce bleeding by 40-50%. They are taken during menstruation and are usually well tolerated but can cause mild nausea and diarrhoea.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as mefenamic acid and naproxen can reduce bleeding by 33-55%. These drugs are also taken just at the time of menstruation. Side effects such as indigestion and diarrhoea are less likely to cause problems since the NSAIDs are only taken for a few days each cycle.

Progestogens such as norethisterone and medroxyprogesterone acetate are taken on a cyclical basis. They can be effective at reducing blood loss and at helping to regulate the menstrual cycle. Long term they are often unacceptable because of their side effects such as bloating, headache, breast tenderness and breakthrough bleeding.

The combined oral contraceptive pill can often diminish menstrual loss although there is little randomized evidence supporting this.

Danazol is a synthetic hormone and it is highly effective at reducing menstrual loss. However side effects such as weight gain, headache, nausea, tiredness and acne are common and can be severe.

Surgical interventions

These include hysterectomy and conservative surgery in the form of endometrial resection or ablation.

Hysterectomy requires a general anaesthetic and a lengthy postoperative recovery period. It can be associated with postoperative complications, some of which may be serious.

Endometrial resection or ablation involves removing the lining of the womb by cutting it away or by destroying it, for example by contact with heat, cold or microwaves. These techniques are less invasive than hysterectomy and involve a shorter hospital stay, quicker recovery and fewer postoperative complications. Menstrual bleeding does not always cease completely and contraception should still be used. It has been reported that up to a third of women go on to have a hysterectomy after a previous ablation procedure.

What does the Cochrane review look at?

This review from the Cochrane Gynaecology and Fertility Group set out to compare the effectiveness, safety and acceptability of surgery versus medical therapy for heavy menstrual bleeding. It was published in January 2016 as an update to the original from 2010. Fifteen trials were included involving 1289 women, aged 30-50, all of whom had sought help for heavy periods.

How good was the evidence?

The quality of the evidence varied from very low to moderate.

Some of the findings from the long-term studies were difficult to interpret since many women randomized to medical treatments went on to have surgery.

So what did the review find?

Surgery, especially hysterectomy, reduced menstrual loss more than medical treatment at one year. Oral medication did, however, suit a minority of women long term. There was no conclusive evidence of a difference in satisfaction between surgery and LNG-IUS. A high proportion of women initially treated with oral medication, conservative surgery or the LNG-IUS went on to require further intervention. Hysterectomy, though the definitive treatment, was sometimes associated with serious side effects. Conservative surgery and the LNG-IUS appeared to be safe, acceptable and effective.

How might further research contribute?

A multi-centre trial is under way in the Netherlands looking at an up-to-date method of endometrial ablation and comparing it to the LNG-IUS.

The Curse…

It has always seemed to me to be a design flaw in the grand scheme of things that women are destined to have periods for nearly forty years of their lives. Not very 21st century – surely we can do better?

For many the monthly cycle is a nuisance; for others it is a regular life changer causing disruption to everyday life. In Nepal it can mean rejection by society, sometimes with disastrous consequences. This review gives an insight into the choices available to some women.

Links:

Marjoribanks JLethaby AFarquhar CSurgery versus medical therapy for heavy menstrual bleeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD003855. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003855.pub3.

Plain language summary of this review http://www.cochrane.org/CD003855/MENSTR_surgery-versus-medical-therapy-heavy-menstrual-bleeding

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Lynda Ware

About Lynda Ware

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Lynda is a Senior Fellow in General Practice with Cochrane UK. She trained as a medical student in Cambridge and London. Her background has been in primary care and she was a GP partner in rural Oxfordshire for over thirty years. Her particular clinical interests were in psychological medicine and gynaecology. Since joining Cochrane UK in 2014 she has given many talks to non-medical audiences in the community about Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) and its relevance to everyday health choices. With a colleague, Lynda also visits schools to talk to students from Years 10 to 13 about EBM and critical thinking, with particular reference to health care claims made in the media. She writes blogs based on Cochrane Reviews on the Evidently Cochrane website.

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