One of the nice things about periods is that they are normally pretty predictable. Being able to anticipate when you’re going to menstruate means that you can “plan around” it; for example, when scheduling a beach vacation, a wedding, or any other time you’d rather not have to deal with having your period.
But for many women, the only thing that’s consistent about their periods is that they happen inconsistently. In most cases, this isn’t any cause for alarm; in fact, most women will experience irregular periods for a variety of reasons at some point in their lifetime.
If your periods are irregular, read on to learn more about the causes and treatment of irregular periods.
What constitutes an “irregular period”?
The average woman has a cycle that is 26-32 days; however, there can be a lot of variation from woman to woman. Cycles that are a little shorter or longer than this are quite common and are not necessarily irregular. A “normal” menstrual cycle is defined as between 21 to 35 days. An irregular period is really just what’s abnormal or unusual for you as compared to your last several menstrual cycles.
Most of the time, your physician will not be overly concerned if your menstrual cycles are occasionally irregular unless they are paired with other significant symptoms, such as excessive bleeding (i.e. heavy bleeding for longer than a few days at a time each month, which may lead to anemia) or severe pain (beyond the normal cramping that most women experience during their period). However if your cycles are so unpredictable that there are no patterns or regular rhythms, then your doctor should want to find out why. Keep in mind that if you experience a sudden increase in your level of pain during your periods compared to normal, especially when paired with irregular bleeding, you should go see your doctor, as s/he will want to explore the cause.
What can cause irregular periods?
Lifestyle factors can contribute to irregular periods, such as:
- Over exercising
- A significant change in weight
- Illegal drug use
All of the above factors potentially can be changed, and therefore can be thought of as modifiable factors.
Other Factors that Can Cause Irregularity
Other factors that may be more difficult to modify include:
- Eating disorders (such as anorexia or bulimia)
- Hormonal imbalances such as Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Hormonal imbalances related to onset of menopause
- Hormonal imbalances related to the pituitary, thyroid and/or adrenal glands
- Use of certain medications (NOTE: it is common for the period to change with the use of certain birth control pills, shots, implants or IUDs and also often with certain psychiatric medications)
- Cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery)
- Recent childbirth, D&C (dilation and curettage) or breastfeeding
- Pelvic abnormalities such as fibroids or endometriosis may also change the quality of your periods
Please note that irregular periods in an older woman does not necessarily mean that she is in menopause, but they may signal perimenopause – a period of time leading up to menopause. Perimenopause can last several years, until a woman has gone an entire year without a period, in which case she is then in menopause.
When should I be concerned about my irregular periods?
If you are bleeding more frequently than every three weeks, you should alert your physician. Keep in mind that “bleeding” means bleeding or spotting. This can be a sign of not ovulating, a cervical or uterine growth, an infection, or even a tumor. On the other hand, if you have missed two periods in a row, it is wise to get a consultation. If it is a routine pattern for you to miss several periods, your doctor should order some tests to find out the reason and then discuss treatment options with you.
If your irregular periods are associated with significant pain and/or heavy bleeding, you should consult your physician. Also, if you have irregular periods and have been trying to become pregnant for one year and have not been successful, it’s best to visit your gynecologist for an examination and likely some testing.
Of course, any time you are concerned about your period or have questions, your physician will be happy to see you in order to clarify information, provide reassurance or perform an examination and order tests if required.
Together We’ll Find A Way
At West Coast Women’s Reproductive Center, we are committed to providing women with quality medical care. If you require more information or would like to make an appointment, please contact the West Coast Women’s Reproductive Center.