What You Need To Know About Menstruation

by Amy, RN, BSN

If you're a teenage girl you probably have started having a period. If not, are you anxious about the subject or worried that it might not happen? This whole menstruation thing might be a big mystery to you, it is to many women. It's actually very complex but, you will see that you need not be overly concerned if you haven't gotten it yet.

Menstruation is the outward proof that a girl is becoming a woman, so she needs to acquire an understanding of what happens during the menstrual cycle. Your period is not a downer, you're becoming a woman and women are very cool and important people. Having a period is your body's way of saying it is normal and functioning properly.

During puberty, hormones from the brain that stimulate the ovaries are released. The ovaries then produce estrogen and progesterone -- hormones that cause the eggs in the ovaries mature so the woman can become pregnant when she chooses to. Here's how the process goes:

Each month, one egg leaves one of the ovaries on its way to the uterus by way of the fallopian tubes. Meanwhile, in preparation for the egg, the uterus starts to develop a thicker lining so that the walls become cushion (the endometrial lining). If the egg reaches the uterus and is fertilized by sperm, it attaches to this cushiony wall, using the extra blood and tissue to nourish itself as it slowly develops into a baby.

Most of the time the egg just passes right through without fertilization. It dissolves. Since the uterus no longer needs the extra blood and tissue which made the walls thick, it sheds them through the vagina. This cycle will happen nearly every month until the ovaries stop releasing eggs, usually several decades later.

Periods are different for every woman. Some girls start menstruation when they're 9 or 10, some in their late teens. The length of the cycle also varies. Some girls periods last longer than 28 days, some shorter. If you have just begun your menstruation, your body will need time to regulate itself to these changes. So your periods might be a bit erratic at first. You may have two cycles in one month and miss having one the next month. How long the period lasts varies also. Some girls have their periods for only 2 or 3 days, others as long as a week. The menstrual flow of blood can vary from woman to woman also.

Some girls may have body or mind changes that they notice around the time of their period. Menstrual cramps are pretty common during the first few days of their periods, most likely caused by prostagladins that causes the muscles of the uterus to contract. These cramps tend to become less uncomfortable and sometimes even disappear completely as a girl gets older. Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can give relief; if not, a health care provider can help.

As your period approaches, you may experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS). You may find your emotions amplified during this time. Many women get depressed, easily irritated, angry, and others cry more than usual or get cravings for certain foods. PMS is related to changes in hormones. Hormone levels rise and fall during a menstrual cycle, affecting the way she feels, both mentally and physically.

Emotions can be more intense, and many women may feel bloated or puffy because of water retention. When your period begins, PMS usually goes away. You may also have an acne flare-up. Periods are a complex part of puberty, but also your body's way of telling you it is functioning properly and you have taken good care of it. Your life won't change that much. You can still exercise and do everything you enjoy. If you have any questions about periods, ask a parent, health teacher, health care provider, or nurse. You can also ask friends or sisters who have had their period for a while. In time you will see that periods are a normal and routine part of your life.


The Menstrual Cycle

The "typical" menstrual cycle occurs regularly over 28 days. Most women have cycles with an interval that lasts from 21 to 35 days. Frequently cycles are unusually short or long during adolescence.

(Day 1 to About Day 14 in a 28-Day Cycle)