Menstrual cramps/pains are sharp pains in a woman's lower abdomen that occur when her menstrual period begins and may continue for 2-3 days or even the whole period. Symptoms can sever enough to land you in the hospital or mild enough to allow you lay down a hot water bottle and all would be well. Although over half of the women who have menstrual periods experience some discomfort, 10% are temporarily disabled by painful menstruation that makes it difficult to perform normal household, job, or school-related activities for a few days during each menstrual cycle. It is known to be the leading cause of lost time from school and work among women in their teens and 20s.
The pain may begin several days before, or just at the start of your period. It generally subsides as menstrual bleeding tapers off. Although some pain during menstruation is normal, excessive pain is not. The medical term for excessively painful periods is dysmenorrhea.
There are two general types of dysmenorrhea:
Primary dysmenorrhea refers to menstrual pain that occurs in otherwise healthy women. This type of pain is not related to any specific problems with the uterus or other pelvic organs.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is menstrual pain that is attributed to some underlying disease or structural abnormality, either within or outside of the uterus.
Activity of the hormone prostaglandin, produced in the uterus, is thought to be a factor in primary dysmenorrhea. Prostaglandins are chemicals a woman's body produces that cause many of the symptoms associated with menstrual discomfort. They stimulate the uterine muscles to contract. Women who have high levels of prostaglandin experience more intense contractions of their uterus and more pain. Prostaglandins may also be responsible for vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches that accompany painful periods. The tissue that lines the uterus makes these chemicals.
Other menstrual-type pain can be caused by conditions of the reproductive tract, such as the following:
Endometriosis - Uterine tissue that appears outside the uterus
Fibroids and adenomyosis - Harmless (benign) growths in the uterus
Infections in the reproductive organs
Abnormal pregnancy, such as an ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the tubes, outside the uterus)
IUD (intra-uterine device) used for birth control
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Sexually transmitted diseases
Stress and anxiety
Narrow cervix: If a woman has had menstrual pain ever since her periods started, the condition is classified as primary dysmenorrhea. If some physical condition such as pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis is causing the menstrual pain, this is called secondary dysmenorrhea. Once the medical condition is treated, the menstrual pain usually goes away.
Myth - A bath causes or worsens menstrual cramps
Fact - A warm bath can soothe and relax muscles, reducing pain.
Myth - Menstrual cramps are due to cold drinks, showers or bath.
Fact - Menstrual cramps are because the uterus is contracting to shed the uterine lining and blood.
Myth - Sex reduces menstrual pain
Fact - Sex only breaks the hymen and expands the virginal and has noting to do with menstrual pain.
The following steps help reduce the pain in some women. It may or may not work for you.
- Apply a heating pad to your lower abdomen (below your belly button). Be careful NOT to fall asleep with the heating pad on.
- Do light circular massage with your fingertips around your lower abdomen.
- Drink warm beverages.
- Eat light but frequent meals.
- Follow a diet rich in complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, but low in salt, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.
- Keep your legs elevated while lying down, or lie on your side with your knees bent.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga.
- Try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen.
- Try vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium supplements, especially if your pain is from PMS.
- Take warm showers or baths.
- Walk or exercise regularly, including pelvic rocking exercises.