Is PMS Overblown? That’s What Research Says.
You may have seen the article in The Star or The Globe and Mail or The Atlantic about the recently published research review by a team of medical researchers who assert that “clear evidence for a specific premenstrual phase-related mood occurring in the general population is lacking.” Judging from the headlines and the online comments, this proposition is surprisingly controversial–probably because the headlines were frequently misleading, suggesting the findings are much broader than they are. Some online commenters are especially angry, insulting the intelligence and methods of the researchers, proclaiming that of course hormones affect moods, as does menstrual pain, citing examples of their own or their wives’ experience.
But Sarah Romans, MB, M.D.; Rose Clarkson, M.D.; Gillian Einstein, Ph.D.; Michele Petrovic, BSc and Donna Stewart, M.D., DPsych–the five medical scholars who reviewed all the extant studies of PMS based on prospective data–did not claim in the now-infamous Gender Medicine review study that PMS does not exist, or that hormones do not affect emotion or mood. The variety of research methods used in other studies prevented them from conducting a meta-analysis–a statistical technique that allows researchers to pool results of several studies, thus suggesting greater impact–so the authors instead looked at such study characteristics as sample size, whether the data was collected prospectively or retrospectively (that is, at the time of occurrence or recalled from memory), whether participants knew menstruation was the focus of the study and whether the study looked at only negative aspects of the menstrual cycle. Although their initial database searches yielded 646 research articles dealing with the menstrual cycle, PMS, emotions, mood and related keywords, only 47 studies met their criteria of daily prospective data collection for at least one full cycle.
When the authors scrutinized these studies, they found that, taken together, there is no basis for the widespread assumption in the U.S. that all (or even most) menstruating women experience PMS. In fact, only seven studies found “the classic premenstrual pattern” with negative mood symptoms experienced in the premenstrual phase only. Eighteen studies found no negative mood associations with any phase of the menstrual cycle at all, while another 18 found negative moods premenstrually and during another phase of the menstrual cycle. In other words, the symptoms these women experienced were not exclusively premenstrual, making the label inaccurate. Four other studies found negative moods only in the non-premenstrual phase of the cycle.
So let’s be fair, angry online commenters (and careless journalists): The researchers aren’t telling you menstrual pain is all in your head, or that your very real period pain won’t affect your mood. Sarah Romans did tell James Hamblin of The Atlantic,
The idea that any emotionality in women can be firstly attributed to their reproductive function—we’re skeptical about that.
Rightly so–feminists have been saying this for decades. Feminist critiques of PMS as a construct point to both the ever-increasing medicalization of women’s lives and the dismissal of women’s emotions, especially anger, by attributing them to biology.
Part of what makes PMS difficult to study, and difficult to talk about, is the multiple meanings of the term. In the research literature, there are more than 150 symptoms–ranging from psychological, cognitive and neurological to physical and behavioral–attributed to PMS. There is no medical or scientific consensus on its definition or its etiology, which also means there is no consensus on its treatment.