Whatever brings a woman to the doctor’s office, she can expect one question without a doubt: “When was the first day of your last period?”
Dr. Alla Vash-Margita, chief of pediatric and adolescent gynecology at Yale Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that while one of the reasons for the question is to gauge whether a woman could be pregnant, the answer can reveal much more about a woman’s health .
“Gynecologists pay a lot of attention to menstruation in general,” she explains. “It has even been proposed that menstruation is considered a vital sign in people with a uterus. Regular menstruation…are just as important as blood pressure, breathing rate, temperature, heart rate.”
Because menstruation can reveal so much about a woman’s health, says Vash-Margita, all doctors — not just gynecologists — should pay attention to women’s periods.
Vash-Margita says regular periods are “a sign of a healthy body.” She explains that periods that stop or are more than 45 days apart can be a symptom of “thyroid disease, disordered eating, strenuous exercise, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and a few other conditions” apart from pregnancy.
In addition to tracking the day your period starts, Dr. Myda Luu, chief of specialty ob-gyn for Kaiser Permanente, notes that people who menstruate track the “duration, frequency and flow of the cycle” as well as “associated symptoms such as severe cramping, pain with intercourse, bleeding between periods, mood swings during the menstrual cycle and migraines.” That’s because these symptoms can be helpful in diagnosing and treating a variety of health problems.
Without tracking, women may miss changes that are important to their overall health, especially if those changes are subtle or happen gradually.
Even if a woman has no immediate health problems and is not concerned about getting pregnant, monitoring periods can help establish a baseline that may be helpful later on. Symptoms that indicate a problem for one woman may be completely normal for another, depending on her health history.
Luu explains that “knowing the first day of your last period is generally about tracking your menstrual cycles and understanding what is normal for you.She adds that tracking periods and associated symptoms “may show significant changes that warrant further investigation.”
She advises anyone who menstruates to tell their doctor if their cycles are longer than 35 days or shorter than 21 days, they bleed more than seven days, they pull through one or more tampons or pads in less than two hours, they don’t last longer than menstruating for three months, experiencing severe pain or bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause at any time during the cycle.
However, if a woman notices changes in her cycle, according to experts, there is no need to panic. Dr. Dan Nayot, an ob-gyn, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist and chief medical advisor for Bird&Be, tells Yahoo Life, “There are many options for medically managing menstrual cycles to improve quality of life.” Nayot advises that those who menstruate advocate for themselves “if the frequency, duration, amount of flow, or associated pain is having a negative impact” on their lives. He adds that anyone who is menstruating should be “proactive” with their care and see their doctor for blood work and other tests if they are concerned.
Knowing the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period is helpful in other ways. Doctor Arlene Go, an ob-gyn and specialist who studies endometriosis at Hera Biotech tells Yahoo Life that it’s important to know “what stage of the cycle the patient is currently in, follicular or luteal. Sometimes symptoms are tied to a particular part of their cycle, and this is important to know for both diagnosis and treatment. Without knowing the date of a patient’s last menstrual period, it can be difficult to determine where they are in their cycle.
Liesel Teen, a labor and delivery nurse and founder of Mommy Labor Nurse, explains “where you are in your menstrual cycle can affect several things, including your weight, vaginal discharge, breast texture and vital signs,” so knowing the first day of your last period is “important information” for your provider. Teen tells Yahoo Life To: “If your provider notices a change in your health after your last visit, it’s helpful to know if that change could be caused by where you are in your cycle” or something more serious.
For example, screening for breast cancer can be influenced by where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. “Your breasts may feel more lumpy at certain points in your cycle than others,” explains Teen. “Knowing this information will help your provider determine if the texture change is related to your cycle or if it needs further investigation.”
Teen acknowledges that it can be difficult to remember all this information. That’s why she recommends anyone who menstruates to track their periods and symptoms with an app, a calendar, or a diary. Nayot adds that “aggregated data” gives doctors even more insight into a patient’s menstrual cycle over time. “Looking back at your cycles and associated symptoms can reveal some interesting patterns that could be beneficial to the patient,” he says.
Teen agrees, saying, “A lot of insight can be gleaned from your menstrual cycle, so having accurate information to give to your provider is extremely helpful.” While women may be embarrassed to talk about their periods, Teen says this is “no different than discussing your blood pressure results or other health concerns,” adding that it’s “important to discuss.”
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: meet the Who behind the how with the Yahoo Life newsletter. Register here.