For most women, the dull ache of period pain is a discomfort they endure only once a month.
But for the estimated 1.5 million UK sufferers of endometriosis, their “invisible illness” can lead to excruciating pain that goes far beyond cramps – and it can appear at any time.
The long-term condition sees tissues similar to those lining the womb grow in other places, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowel and bladder, and the resulting symptoms can have a significant impact on sufferers’ daily lives.
Now, a new week-long exhibition opening in Edinburgh is aiming to raise awareness of the disorder, which affects as many as one in 10 women worldwide, and can cause infertility.
Open to the public from tomorrow, Beyond The Invisible features the work of renowned photographer Rankin and includes portraits of 15 women and men with a connection to the illness.
Famous for capturing the likes of The Queen, Madonna and David Bowie, Rankin’s subjects for the exhibition come from all walks of life, and include TV presenter Julia Bradbury, who has opened up about her own battle with endometriosis.
Like most women, Julia was unaware her symptoms were related to more than just her monthly cycle, and struggled to gain a diagnosis.
“I didn’t know I had endometriosis until I was in my mid-30s,” explained the 48-year-old former host of Countryfile.
“I just thought I had heavy periods and bad moods every month – I put it all down to my monthly cycle.
“I was diagnosed when I was about 33 or 34 and the first thing that concerned me most was how it would impact my fertility. I became very distressed at that stage, and that had an impact on my mental and emotional health. Of course, I was dealing with the physical symptoms as well.”
Diagnosis currently takes an average of seven-and-a-half years in the UK, which Professor Andrew Horne admits is due to a number of factors, including a lack of awareness of the disease among both women and GPs. However, the professor of gynaecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Edinburgh, also says there is a need for better diagnostic tests for patients.
He said: “Endometriosis is difficult to diagnose because there has been a real lack of awareness and there is also currently no reliable, non-invasive diagnostic test.
“To get a diagnosis many women require keyhole surgery, and this is added to the fact that pelvic pain can also be associated with irritable bowel syndrome, bladder pain and other conditions.”
According to savings firm Standard Life, which is supporting the exhibition, endometriosis can also cause women to lose £40,000 in earnings over a lifetime.
Professor Horne added: “The more people talk about endometriosis, the better.
“That gives women with the condition the support they need so they don’t have to suffer in silence.”
Beyond The Invisible, Stills Gallery, April 1-8