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Understanding your menstrual cycle

Menstruation, also known as menses, is the normal monthly bleeding that occurs in females who are of reproductive age. It is part of the regular menstrual cycle, where each month, the body prepares the uterus by building up a lining for the arrival and implantation of a fertilized egg. If there is no fertilized egg, the thickened lining of the uterus is shed through the vagina, and then the process starts over again.

Menstruation Basics

For most girls, menstruation starts at around age 12 or 13, but it can start as early as 9 years or as late as age 16. In general, the first menstruation period arrives about two and one-half years after the start of breast development. Approximately once each month, the pituitary gland within the brain sends out a hormone that signals the ovaries to release an egg. When that egg is not fertilized, about two weeks later, the uterus sheds the thick, bloody lining that was built up to host the egg if conception had occurred. Most menstrual periods last between three and seven days, and the amount of blood flow can vary each day of a period. In general, the first few days of a menstrual period are when the blood flow will be heaviest.

Menstrual periods occur about once each month, but the time between periods can vary by individual. Any time between 21 and 35 days is still considered normal for a menstrual cycle. Many factors can influence the cycle time and cause irregular periods, including changes in weight, eating disorders, increased excitement, exercise, stress, illness and traveling. Of course, an irregular or missed period can be a sign of pregnancy if a woman is sexually active.

The two types of feminine protection which women can wear during their periods are external protection products and internal protection products. External products include sanitary pads and pantiliners and are usually attached to the inside of underwear to absorb menstrual blood after it leaves the vagina. Internal protection, like a tampon, is inserted into the vagina to absorb or catch menstrual blood before it leaves the vagina. It's a personal preference as to what type of protection is best.

Common Menstruation Problems

Menstrual cramps are experienced by most women at one point or another in their lives. These cramps most often take the form of sharp pains in the lower abdomen, but it is not uncommon to experience a dull back pain as well. Cramps are due to normal uterine contractions, and most discomfort can be relieved using nonprescription medications which contain ibuprofen or naproxen. If the pain is severe or is not relieved by over-the-counter medications, see a medical professional.

Heavy periods are another common menstruation problem; they are sometimes caused by hormone imbalances. If heavy periods continue for several months, it is time to talk to your health care provider.

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