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Dyspercentagia at the New York Times
Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D, Nov 24, 2008
If a menstrual disorder affects 90 percent of adolescent girls, is it really a disorder?

The New York Times posted an interesting article last week about dysmenorrhea, a menstrual disorder characterized by painful cramps in the lower abdomen. Like many "personal" stories about widespread medical problems, it featured a young woman who had the disorder and suffered through it for many years before finally seeking and finding help. It advocates increased awareness of the problem, and points to other medical conditions that painful menstrual periods might indicate, such as endometriosis.

Unfortunately, the New York Times tried and failed to get quantitative:

"Stories like Ms. Patel's are all too common. Dysmenorrhea... affects 20 to 90 percent of adolescent girls in some way and severely impacts another 14 to 42 percent."

With a range like 20 to 90 percent, why even bother to report the figures? It might be one in five, or it might be nine in ten. This range of percentages is tantamount to saying "at least some young women suffer, but not all of them." Not particularly helpful information.

Even more confusing is the the idea that it impacts "another" 14 to 42 percent. Last I checked, 90 plus 14 is already over 100 percent of all adolescent girls. Perhaps the New York Times meant that dysmenorrhea is severe in 14 to 42 percent, and has possibly milder effects on a larger, vaguely defined, group.

The confusion is not helped by the "in brief" that describes dysmenorrhea as simply "menstrual cramps" while the article calls it "painful cramps... sometimes accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness or fainting." The author of the article acknowledges that it is hard to determine dysmenorrhea's prevalence because the definition varies to widely – but she makes no attempt to qualify the numbers either. A simple statement that approximately 90 percent of adolescent girls suffer some menstrual cramps would be much more informative than first speaking to the most painful cases of the "disorder" and then stating that as many as 90 percent of teenage girls are effected by it - clearly, 90 percent of all young women are not curled up on their beds in pain for one or two days a month.

Which leads to another question: is "disorder" the right word if 90 percent of women have it? Would painful childbirth also be considered a disorder? Clearly the "disorder" is about when the cramps are debilitating.

A better article might have pointed specifically to the most extreme cases: what percentage of women have severe cramping that takes them out of school or work? What percentage of post-teen women are actually on medication to minimize the pain or the menstrual period itself? The New York Times makes an important pitch for increased awareness, but the cause is not helped by inflated numbers or changing the meaning of a medical term in the course of one article.


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