What Is Menorrhagia?
The duration and severity of menstrual bleeding varies from woman to woman. If a woman’s menstrual period is excessively heavy, prolonged, or irregular, it is called menorrhagia.
Symptoms of menorrhagia include a menstrual period that lasts longer than seven days and bleeding is so heavy that you must change your tampon or pad more than once per hour. You should see your doctor if you have excessively heavy or prolonged menstrual periods that interfere with your daily life.
Excessive bleeding can cause anemia (iron deficiency) or signal an underlying medical condition. In most cases, abnormal periods can be successfully treated.
What Is a Normal Menstrual Period?
The length of the menstrual cycle and amount of blood flow is unique to each woman. However, most women have a cycle that ranges from 24 to 34 days. Blood flow averages about four or five days, with a blood loss of about 40 cc (3 tablespoons). It is important to remember that these are just averages and that your “normal” may fall outside of these ranges.
Symptoms of Abnormal Menstrual Periods
A blood loss of 80cc (5 tablespoons) or more is considered an abnormally heavy flow. Signs that your flow may be abnormally heavy include:
- You are soaking through more than one tampon or sanitary pad in an hour, for several hours at a time.
- You need to double-up on sanitary pads or need both a tampon and a pad.
- You wake up during the night because you need to change protection.
- You notice large blood clots in your flow.
- Your period lasts more than a week.
- You can’t participate in your normal activities because your flow is too heavy.
- You have signs of anemia, which include fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath and dizziness.
While every woman’s cycle is different, irregularities such as bleeding mid-cycle or bleeding after intercourse are considered abnormal symptoms.
What to Do About Heavy or Irregular Menstrual Periods
Keep track of your menstrual cycles, how long your blood flow lasts, and how many tampons or sanitary pads you use during each cycle. This information will be helpful at your next gynecological appointment. Avoid products that contain aspirin because they may increase bleeding.
When to Seek Medical Care
You should see your gynecologist once a year for a check-up. However, you should make an appointment right away if you have:
- bleeding or spotting between periods
- bleeding or spotting after intercourse
- bleeding or spotting while pregnant
- bleeding or spotting after menopause
- periods that require more than one tampon or sanitary pad in an hour, for two or three consecutive hours
- periods that consistently last for more than a week
- severe pain
- abnormal discharge or abnormal odor
- unexplained weight gain or loss
- unusual hair growth, new acne, or discharge from your nipples
Risks of Heavy Menstrual Periods
Heavy blood flow is not always a sign that something is wrong. However, excessive loss of blood can deplete the body’s supply of iron and cause anemia. A mild case of anemia can cause fatigue and weakness. A more severe case can result in headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and rapid heart rate.
A very heavy flow can also cause painful cramping (dysmenorrhea), which sometimes requires medication.
Diagnosing Heavy or Irregular Menstrual Periods
If you have abnormal menstrual periods, your doctor will probably begin with a pelvic examination. You should also be prepared to give your medical history and list all the medications and supplements you are taking.
Depending on your specific symptoms, diagnostic testing may include:
- a pap smear to check for various infections or cancerous cells
- blood tests to check for anemia, blood-clotting problems, and thyroid function
- pelvic ultrasound to produce images of your uterus, ovaries, and pelvis
- endometrial biopsy to analyze a sample of uterine tissue
- hysteroscopy to view the inside of your uterus
- pregnancy test
Causes of Heavy or Irregular Menstrual Periods
Heavy or irregular periods can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
Medications: Some anti-inflammatory drugs, anticoagulants, or hormone medications can affect menstrual bleeding.
- Intrauterine devices (IUD): Heavy bleeding can be a side effect of intrauterine devices used for birth control.
- Hormonal imbalance, abnormal thyroid or pituitary function: The build-up of the lining of the uterus is regulated by the hormones estrogen and progesterone. An excess of these hormones can cause heavy bleeding. Hormone imbalances are most common among girls who began mestruating in the past year and a half, and women who are getting close to menopause.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease or other infections
- Endometriosis: This is a condition in which tissue that lines the inside of the uterus begins to grow elsewhere inside the body, which can cause heavy bleeding as well as pain.
- Fibroids: Noncancerous tumors in the uterus can cause heavy bleeding or long periods.
- Polyps: Benign growths in the uterine lining (endometrium) can cause a heavy or prolonged period.
- Ovary dysfunction: Lack of ovulation (anovulation) results in a lack of progesterone, causing heavy periods.
- Adenomyosis: When glands from the uterine lining embed in uterine muscle, heavy bleeding can occur.
- Complications of pregnancy: Contact your doctor if you bleed during pregnancy. Normal pregnancy interrupts menstruation; however, some spotting during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, is often nothing to worry about. Seek immediate medical attention if you bleed heavily during pregnancy, it can be a sign that the fertilized egg has implanted in the fallopian tube rather than the uterus (ectopic pregnancy). It can also indicate a miscarriage.
- Bleeding disorders: Heavy menstrual bleeding can be caused by some inherited blood disorders that affect clotting.
- Cancer: Cervical, ovarian, or uterine cancer can all cause heavy bleeding, but this is rare.
Treatment for Heavy or Irregular Menstrual Periods
Treatment will be based on your overall health, the reason for your menstrual abnormalities, and your reproductive history and future plans. Any underlying medical conditions, such as thyroid dysfunction, will need to be addressed.
Mild blood loss can be reduced with the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, and anemia can be treated with iron supplements. If your irregularities are caused by medications, you can work with your doctor to find alternatives. Hormonal imbalances may be treated with hormone replacement injections. Oral contraceptives can also be used to regulate your cycle and shorten periods.
Dilation and curettage (D&C) is a procedure in which the doctor dilates your cervix and scrapes tissue from the lining of your uterus. This is a fairly common procedure and generally cuts down on menstrual bleeding.
Cancerous tumors are generally removed through surgery. Surgery is also an option to treat fibroids, but is not always necessary. Polyps can be removed in a procedure called a hysteroscopy, in which the doctor uses a lighted tube to view the uterus and remove the polyp.
Endometrial ablation is a procedure used in women who have had no success with medications to control heavy bleeding and related symptoms. In this procedure, the doctor will destroy the uterine lining, leaving little or no menstrual flow. Endometrial resection removes the uterine lining. This procedure significantly decreases your chances of a future pregnancy, so women who plan on having children should discuss other possible treatment options.
Hysterectomy is the surgical removal of the uterus and cervix, and may be recommended in the case of cancers, to remove fibroids, and to treat endometriosis that has not responded to other less-invasive forms of treatment. A hysterectomy will end your ability to bear children. If necessary, the ovaries are also removed, resulting in premature menopause.