In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, the triple threat gets real about her experience to help other women dealing with the condition's often crippling symptoms.
Following in the footsteps of stars like Lena Dunham, Daisy Ridley, and singer Halsey, Julianne Hough is the latest celeb to bravely open up about her struggle with endometriosis—and the severe symptoms and emotional turmoil that can go along with it.
The common condition, which affects 176 million women worldwide, occurs when endometrial tissue—the tissue that normally lines the uterus—grows on the outside of the uterine walls, typically around the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or other pelvic floor areas. This can cause intense abdominal and lower back pain, digestive issues, heavy bleeding during your period, and even fertility problems.
Like most women who have yet to be diagnosed, Hough suffered through "constant bleeding" and "sharp, sharp pains" for years, all the while believing it was par for the course. "I got my period and I thought this is just the way it is—this is just the normal pain and cramps that you get. And who wants to talk about their period at 15? It's uncomfortable," she says.
Let's face it, no one likes to have their period—or the bloating, cramps, and mood swings that go along with it. But endometriosis takes those symptoms to a whole new level. As with any menstrual cycle, displaced endometrial tissue breaks down causing you to bleed, but because it's on the outside of the uterus (where there isn't an exit!) it becomes trapped, causing chronic pains throughout the abdomen during and after your period. Plus, over time, endometriosis could even cause fertility problems from the excess tissue building up around crucial reproductive organs. (Up next: How Much Pelvic Pain Is Normal for Menstrual Cramps?)
Unaware of what endometriosis even was, Hough simply powered through the crippling pain. "My nickname growing up was always 'Tough Cookie,' so if I had to take a break it made me feel so insecure and like I was weak. So I didn't let anyone know that I was in pain, and I focused on dancing, doing my work, and not complaining," she says.
Finally, in 2008 at age 20, while she was on the set of Dancing with the Stars, the abdominal pain became so severe that she finally went to the doctor at the insistence of her mom. After an ultrasound revealed a cyst on her left ovary and scar tissue which spread outside of her uterus, she had immediate surgery to have her appendix removed and to laser off the scar tissue that had spread. After five years of pain, she finally had a diagnosis. (On average, women live with this for six to 10 years before they get diagnosed.)
Now, as the spokesperson for biopharmaceutical company AbbVie's "Get in the Know About ME in EndoMEtriosis" campaign, which aims to help more women learn about and better understand this serious condition, Hough is using her voice again and speaking out about what it's really like to live with endometriosis, raising awareness about the often misunderstood condition and, she hopes, preventing women from enduring years of suffering.
Although Hough shares that her surgery helped "clear things up" for a while, endometriosis still affects her day-to-day life. "I work out and am very active, but even to this day still it can be debilitating. There are some days where I'm like, I just can't work out today. I don't know when my period is because it's all month long and it's really painful. Sometimes I'll be in photo shoots or working and need to actually stop what I'm doing and wait for it to pass," she says.
Sure, some days she needs to just "get into the fetal position," but she's able to manage her symptoms. "I have a water bottle that I heat up and also my dog who is just a natural heating source. I put her right on me. Or I get in the bathtub," she says. (While endometriosis is not curable, treatment options to manage the symptoms like meds and surgery do exist. You can also incorporate medium- to high-intensity exercise into your daily routine since physical activity helps reduce the pain-reception hormones that are released during your menstrual cycle.)
The biggest change, though? "Now, instead of powering through it and saying 'I'm fine I'm fine' or pretending like nothing is happening, I own it and I'm voicing it," she says. "I want to speak up so we don't have to fight this by ourselves in silence."
Reporting assisted by Sophie Dweck