Experiences of menstruation in high income countries: A systematic review, qualitative evidence synthesis and comparison to low- and middle-income countries


Background: There is growing recognition of the importance of menstruation in achieving health, education, and gender equality for all. New policies in high income countries (HICs) have responded to anecdotal evidence that many struggle to meet their menstrual health needs. Qualitative research has explored lived experiences of menstruating in HICs and can contribute to designing intervention approaches. To inform the growing policy attention to support people who menstruate, here we review and synthesise the existing research.

Methods and findings: Primary, qualitative studies capturing experiences of menstruation in HICs were eligible for inclusion. Systematic database and hand searching identified 11485 records. Following screening and quality appraisal using the EPPI-Centre checklist, 104 studies (120 publications) detailing the menstrual experiences of over 3800 individuals across sixteen countries were included. We used the integrated model of menstrual experiences developed from studies in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) as a starting framework and deductively and inductively identified antecedents contributing to menstrual experiences; menstrual experiences themselves and impacts of menstrual experiences. Included studies described consistent themes and relationships that fit well with the LMIC integrated model, with modifications to themes and model pathways identified through our analysis. The socio-cultural context heavily shaped menstrual experiences, manifesting in strict behavioural expectations to conceal menstruation and limiting the provision of menstrual materials. Resource limitations contributed to negative experiences, where dissatisfaction with menstrual practices and management environments were expressed along with feelings of disgust if participants felt they failed to manage their menstruation in a discrete, hygienic way. Physical menstrual factors such as pain were commonly associated with negative experiences, with mixed experiences of healthcare reported. Across studies participants described negative impacts of their menstrual experience including increased mental burden and detrimental impacts on participation and personal relationships. Positive experiences were more rarely reported, although relationships between cis-women were sometimes strengthened by shared experiences of menstrual bleeding. Included studies reflected a broad range of disciplines and epistemologies. Many aimed to understand the constructed meanings of menstruation, but few were explicitly designed to inform policy or practice. Few studies focused on socioeconomically disadvantaged groups relevant to new policy efforts.

Conclusions: We developed an integrated model of menstrual experience in HICs which can be used to inform research, policy and practice decisions by emphasising the pathways through which positive and negative menstrual experiences manifest.

Review protocol registration: The review protocol registration is PROSPERO: CRD42019157618.

Author Barrington, D. J., Robinson, H. J., Wilson, E., & Hennegan, J.
Journal PloS one
Published 21 July 2021
Volume 16
Issue 7
Pagination e0255001
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0255001