You may wonder why I am writing about dysmenorrhoea. It is because in a number of cases that I see, there is co-existing dysmenorrhea and other functional pain syndromes. These include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraine, chronic low back pain, pelvic pain, bladder pain and fibromyalgia. Traditionally all of these problems are managed by different specialists with their particular end-organ in mind—e.g./ IBS = gastroenterologist; migraine = neurologist; fibromyalgia = rheumatologist. The science however, tells us that these seemingly unrelated conditions can be underpinned by a common factor, central sensitisation. This is not a blog about dysmenorrhoea per se, but considers the problem in the light of recent scientific findings and how it co-exists with other conditions.
Central sensitisation is a state of the central nervous system (CNS)—the spinal cord and the brain. This state develops when the CNS is bombarded with danger signals from the tissues and organs. It means that when information from the body tissues, organs and systems reaches the spinal cord, it is modified before heading up to the brain. The brain scrutinises this information and responds appropriately by telling the body to respond. If there is sensitisation, these responses are protective and that includes pain. Pain is part of a protective mechanism along with changes in movement, activity in the endocrine system, the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. Pain itself is a motivator. It motivates action because it is unpleasant, and provides an opportunity to learn—e.g./ do not touch because it is hot. This is very useful with a new injury but less helpful when the injury has healed or there is no sign of persisting pathology.
Understanding that central sensitisation plays a part in these conditions creates an opportunity to target the underlying mechanisms. This can be with medication that acts upon the CNS and with contemporary non-medical approaches that focus upon the spinal cord and brain such as imagery, sensorimotor training, mindfulness and relaxation. In this way, dysmenorrhoea can be treated in a similar fashion to a chronic pain condition although traditionally it is not considered to be such a problem. The recent work by Vincent et al. (2011) observed activity in the brains of women with dysmenorrhoea and found it to be similar to women with chronic pain, highlighting the importance of early and appropriate management.
The aforementioned study joins an increasing amount of research looking at the commonality of functional pain syndromes. We must therefore, be vigilant when we are assessing pain states and consider that the presenting problem maybe just part of the bigger picture. Recognising that central processing of signals from the body is altered in a number of conditions that appear to be diverse allows us to offer better care and hence improve quality of life.
* If you are suffering with undiagnosed pain, you should consult with your GP or a health professional.