Lydia Ko's period pains aren't an excuse, they're a valid reason

OPINION: You may have seen Lydia Ko on the news this week. The New Zealand golfer placed third in her recent quest for an 18th LPGA Tour title.

That wasn’t the big news, however. The big news is that when asked about it, she explained that she’s been struggling with back pain because “it’s that time of the month.”

Lydia Ko has been open about mental back pain affecting her performance on this week's LPGA Tour.

Ashley Landis/AP

Lydia Ko has been open about mental back pain affecting her performance on this week’s LPGA Tour.

“I know the ladies who are watching are probably going, ‘Yeah, I got you,'” Ko said, laughing during an interview.

“So when that happens, my back gets really tight and I’m all twisted… So, yeah, here we go.”

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We need more Lydia Kos in sport and in high profile positions. She should be celebrated for speaking matter-of-factly on a topic that women too often feel like they have to deal with in silence.

But the frustrating thing is, it shouldn’t need to be celebrated. The fact that symptoms and pain caused by periods affect our ability to perform should be accepted and understood.

Only it isn’t.

As women, we’re often made to feel like we make excuses or are weak or somehow “less than” for suffering from menstrual pain and discomfort and allowing our performance to suffer.

I’ve had co-workers and friends quietly turning to me for painkillers for their menstrual cramps. I’m sure every woman can relate to this. We use soft voices. I’m sure it’s not even a conscious decision. Rather, we’ve just gotten used to being quieter when it comes to pain and periods. As if our inability to deal with it was something we had to keep secret.

I’m definitely not a professional athlete. But I enjoy my sport. I was a competitive gymnast as a teenager and fell in love with casual weightlifting and CrossFit as an adult.

And one thing I’ve learned in the process is that period pain can be a nightmare to deal with when you’re expected to do your best. Whether that achievement is accomplished as a top athlete or as a competitive beginner, the impact of period discomfort on performance is very real.

The difference is that my performance is not judged by the world.

dr Sarah Donovan is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Public Health at Otago University, Wellington. She told me that period pain and discomfort is definitely a stigma. She says that a professional athlete like Ko publicly announcing that symptoms are affecting her performance is an indication that the stigma around menstruation could be disappearing.

“[That is] It’s a very positive thing for women and girls, for whom this is a part of life that needs to be tackled if they don’t want to miss out on the opportunities they want,” she says.

Period pain isn’t an excuse, it’s a reason. And one that should be accepted just like any other health condition or injury.

Whether you're an athlete or just trying to go about your day, period pain can affect performance and is something we don't need to talk about.

Sydney Sims

Whether you’re an athlete or just trying to go about your day, period pain can affect performance and is something we don’t need to talk about.

My mom was just the kind of mom who instilled a “gulp it up” mentality. That’s nothing against my mum. She was a supportive, loving person. But she taught me what she herself had been taught all her life.

periods happen. They can hurt, but you have to deal with them. Because it’s just a period.

move around You’ll be fine.

Donovan told me that in every country, menstrual pain is the number one reason women and girls miss school or work. And that for some, menstrual pain can be just as bad as labor.

“Women with severe menstrual cramps really suffer, and absenteeism from work and school is a regular occurrence for this group. Menstrual pain is truly a hidden health burden for women and girls and can result in missed professional and social opportunities, including not engaging in activities such as exercise,” she said.

And yet somehow it’s not accepted as a viable reason for a drop in performance.

I certainly never got a day off because of period pains. I definitely didn’t take days off from the gym or training.

And that mentality is an even bigger problem when you’re an athlete. As a young gymnast I competed at a regional and national level. And the athlete mentality was very similar to the period mentality. If you want to be successful, you have to suck it up.

That may be why I missed a back fracture before developing lifelong back disease.

Menstrual cramps are the number one reason girls and women miss school or work in every country, says Dr.  Sarah Donovan.

Sasun Bugdary

Menstrual cramps are the number one reason girls and women miss school or work in every country, says Dr. Sarah Donovan.

This is possibly why, as a teenager, I described my debilitating appendicitis as far less severe than it was, and I went undiagnosed and hospitalized until finally waking up in the middle of the night with a fever and vomiting.

Athletes are tough. There are even more top athletes. For that reason, Ko can hopefully help reduce the “it’s only a period” mentality when she talks about how menstrual pain has affected her performance.

“Just one period” has me sitting in the office dosing ibuprofen to get through the day with pelvic and back pain rather than calling in sick because of the acknowledgment that performance can suffer from the pain feels weak.

“Just one period” is probably why I wasn’t finally diagnosed until I was almost 40 with endometriosis, a condition that affects 12% of women and causes severe pain and menstrual irregularities because menstrual pain is normal and we just have to be soak up.

I applaud Ko for speaking out about how sometimes period pains hurt. And sometimes this “back twist”, tension, pain and cramps make it impossible to perform at our best.

Menstrual pain is not an excuse, it is a reason. And it’s a very real one.

If more professional athletes and high-profile women were honest about how pain and symptoms during their period affect performance, maybe the average woman would feel better about struggling, too.

So yes, Ko should be celebrated for her honesty and jokes about period pains and how they affect performance.

But she doesn’t have to be.