Endometriosis, Pain and Sport
By Steve Dechan
The link between endometriosis, pain and sport is an intrinsic one, that many might not be aware of, but that many are affected by.
March 2021 marks Endometriosis Month, so I see no better time to highlight the condition’s impact on our female population, but more specifically, our female athlete population.
Endometriosis is the name given to the condition where cells similar to the ones in the lining of the womb are found elsewhere in the body.
Each month these cells react in the same way to those in the womb, building up and then breaking down and bleeding. Unlike the cells in the womb that leave the body as a period, this blood has no way to escape.
It is a chronic and often debilitating condition that can lead to chronic pain, fatigue, depression, bladder and bowel problems and infertility.(1)
Pain is a common symptom of a period, which partly explains why endometriosis diagnosis is so difficult. Some women dismiss symptoms, and some may take a few painkillers and get on with their day. However, even when pain is more serious, it often takes repeated visits to a doctor, with the patient having to insist something is not right, before the first steps are taken towards a diagnosis.
Around 1.5 million women in the UK, 1 in every 10, are currently living with endometriosis.
This, paired with the 3 in every 10 that play at least 30 minutes of moderate sport at least once a week, means that endometriosis and its resulting impact on sporting performance is overwhelming.(2)
However, despite this wide-ranging impact, endometriosis care is not where it should be, and it takes, on average, seven and a half years to be diagnosed.
For an athlete, endometriosis can impact every element of their livelihood, whether physically, mentally, socially or economically. For an athlete, endometriosis can be the difference between being selected or being seen as a liability. Between staying in their profession or losing a sponsorship. Between being in a clear headspace or doubting their every ability.
Endometriosis is not spoken about enough and it’s time it was.
If your job is to run, or swim, or cycle, and your body is stopping you doing that, it becomes incredibly difficult to sustain yourself physically, but as a result, economically. It’s quite possible that an athlete’s funding depends on how many medals they win, or how well they perform at that week’s competitions, but when endometriosis, a condition that causes severe cramps, back pain, nausea and heavy periods, enters the frame, performance is instantly inhibited.
The threat endometriosis can have on performance and funding has been felt no clearer than by Monique Murphy, a Paralympic silver medallist, who’s life would be hugely impacted if faced with a loss of financial support.
For Murphy, after consultations with 14 doctors, she had surgery and was diagnosed with endometriosis, alongside adenomyosis. At 26, she decided to go through a chemical menopause; a temporary menopausal state which suppresses hormones and stops periods. Murphy has hot flushes and joint pains – but for her, it was better than the pain and “brain fog” she experienced before.(3)
Netball is the most popular sport among women in the UK, and in a squad of 12 netballers, the odds suggest that at least 1 will have endometriosis, it truly is a silent epidemic.(4)
Going forward, we must do what we can to assure these women that the necessary support is there, both in terms of diagnosis and treatment – it is a topic I am particularly passionate about.
Female athletes should be allowed to dominate on the court, without having to stress about what is happening off it, and the effective treatment of endometriosis is one way of achieving this.