The problem is hardly a popular topic of conversation, but even doctors cringe at the subject of heavy periods.
It meant the cause was missed, leaving her — like thousands of women — suffering needlessly for years. ‘I’ve always had heavy periods, it’s been the bane of my life, but it was never taken seriously,’ says Bev, 46, who works in hospital operating theatres.
‘I was in the airforce when I was younger, so we moved around a lot,’ says Bev, from Rochdale, Greater Manchester. ‘I had a new GP every couple of years. They were always old and male, and they just rolled their eyes. It was never investigated.’
From the start of menstruation at ten, Bev’s monthly periods were long, painful and heavy. It was physically debilitating, had a huge impact on her work and social life, and was devastating for her confidence.
‘It’s been a huge source of anxiety and I’ve had so many horrible, embarrassing episodes. Every time I booked a holiday, or was invited to a wedding, I’d think, “Oh please, don’t let me be on my period”.’
Bev, who is married with a daughter, 22, and son, 19, tried treatments such as the contraceptive pill and Mirena coil — which releases hormones that help to thin the lining of the womb — but none got the problem sufficiently under control.
Doctors had said things would get better once she had children, but although her periods were lighter for a while, they then became worse than ever.
‘I began dreading talking to the doctor about it. I’d try to explain that I had to sleep on towels, but got nowhere. For most of my life, I felt it was part and parcel of being a woman.’
Only now has she learnt the truth behind her problem.
Malcolm Dickson, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Rochdale Infirmary and a colleague of Bev’s, has been investigating her symptoms and believes she is one of many thousands with heavy menstrual bleeding that is caused by Von Willebrand disease, an inherited condition that impairs the blood’s ability to clot.
Carriers either lack Von Willebrand factor — a protein in the blood that helps it to clot — or the factor is present but doesn’t work properly. (It is not haemophilia, which is a more serious bleeding disorder where a different protein is lacking).
Up to 2 per cent of people are thought to have the genetic fault that causes a lack of Von Willebrand factor, but few realise they have it, says Mr Dickson. ‘The majority of men who have it won’t be troubled by it, but because of bleeding complications associated with menstruation and childbirth, women who have it, will.’
He says the disease is often overlooked as a cause of heavy periods, meaning many women miss the right management and treatments.
‘Invariably it raises its head when women reach puberty; they go to their GP who puts them on the contraceptive pill, which is not very effective at controlling bleeding if it’s due to Von Willebrand,’ says Mr Dickson. ‘They’re then put on another contraceptive pill and so on — they try various things that may improve the situation but never sort it permanently.’
Mr Dickson says up to 30 per cent of women with heavy menstrual bleeding have Von Willebrand disease.
Signs that it might be present include very heavy, long painful periods — menstrual ‘flooding’, passing clots and needing to change sanitary products very frequently and at night.
Those affected also typically report a family history of heavy periods; they may also bruise easily or have a tendency for nose bleeds, or have experienced heavy bleeding after a trauma or a procedure such as a dental extraction or tattoo.
Very heavy periods from a young age may also be a clue, says Mr Dickson, as other causes such as fibroids tend to start later in life.
‘The difficulty that sometimes arises is that women are asked, “are your periods normal?” and because their periods are the same as other women in their family, they say yes,’ adds Dr Charles Percy, a consultant haematologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
Read more: Daily Mail