Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed inĀ news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

3 thoughts on “Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

  1. I’m glad you finally decided to write this story. It is absolutely mind-boggling that this research could be an “expert” in the field of menstruation and have never heard of a menstrual cup. I hope he was filled with humility after your conversation. I also research an area in which I am not a “participant” and therefore do not have experiential evidence of the phenomena that I discuss. I am always fearful that I will somehow miss something or get it wrong, but I would like to believe that, no matter what, I would never get it this wrong! As you say, he could have just googled it and come up with a better method for menstrual blood measurement.

  2. Pingback: Society for Menstrual Cycle Research : » #PeriodTalk, Period Hate, Period Ignorance, and More Weekend Links

  3. This story confirms my belief that the medical profession is witless about many aspects of menstruation. Not only, as you note, was this researcher ignorant of a common method of managing menstrual flow, but many medical practitioners are ignorant of proven effective treatments for heavy menstrual bleeding that do not involve hormonal contraception. Any menstrual cycle researcher who is not familiar with the work of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle Research associated with the University of British Columbia has not done his or her due diligence.

    I’m also fed up with the medical profession in North America maintaining its ignorance and bias against fertility awareness methods of birth control. Ironically, they only turn to fertility charting to treat infertility, but heaven forbid they should ever educate themselves about how learning to observe, chart and interpret our menstrual cycle events can help woman manage and preserve their fertility.

    Thanks for sharing this story.

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