Many of us have been there: curled up on the couch, four bars of chocolate deep, gritted teeth, all because Aunt Flo kicked us in the abdomen. It's no secret that period pain can sometimes cramp your style. But let's take a moment to consider what actually causes period pain, and is it healthy? In fact, these are some of the most Googled enquiries, with some women querying mild discomfort and others questioning debilitating pain that interferes with, well, simply living. Stay tuned for the rundown on all things cramps.
What are period cramps?
The medical name for period cramps is Dysmenorrhoea, literally meaning 'difficult monthly flow' in Greek. According to Webmd, menstrual cramps occur due to naturally-produced, hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins that, "stimulate the uterine muscles to contract" and then shed its lining. Christine Masterson, MD, chief of the women and children's service line at Summit Medical Group in New Jersey, explains that, "Uterine lining builds up over the course of your cycle, and the uterus responds with cramping as a method to control the bleeding [during menstruation] … If you have a lot of menstrual blood or a blood clot, sometimes the uterus will cramp to expel that".
Your prostaglandins levels cause feelings of cramping and heaviness in the pelvis, as well as pain in the lower back, belly, and even legs. Some women experience nausea, upset stomach, weakness, and/or paleness too.
How to relieve symptoms of period pain
To crush those cramps, Jean Hailes, a national nonprofit focused on women's health, recommends the following:
- Apply heat on the lower belly or back to relax muscles. There's nothin' like cuddling a hot water bottle or heat pack!
- Exercise to release endorphins ("natural feel-good hormones"). Try out gentle exercise like yoga, or, if you're feeling up to it, go on a run outdoors to breathe in some fresh air.
- Relax with rest, warm baths, or meditation to relieve stress. Try out aromatherapy oils for some extra zen. For that time of the month, Organic Aromas recommends Lavender, Eucalyptus, Rose, Ylang-Ylang, and Chamomile scents.
- Take over-the-counter pain-relief medications at the onset of pain and take regularly during the days you normally have pain. Discuss the pros and cons of using them with your doctor.
When to call the doctor
According to the Centre for Young Women's Health, in most cases, period cramps are super inconvenient but generally nothing more than a healthy body's reaction to the natural shedding of the uterine lining. However, Traci C. Johnson, MD recommends that a woman call her doctor if:
- "Menstrual cramps continue to be painful for longer than usual.
- The pain is suddenly worse or different from what she may have experienced before.
- Bleeding is excessive, requiring more than one pad or tampon per hour [or frequent changes of your Modibodi undies].
- Signs of infection, such as fever, chills, and body aches, are present at the time of the period.
- The woman suspects she may be pregnant and any of these symptoms occur."
When over-the-counter meds aren't cutting it
Keep in mind that there are some more serious conditions that can cause cramps too. Traci C. Johnson, MD suggests that you check with your healthcare provider if you think you're experiencing any of the following:
- Endometriosis: uterine tissue that appears outside the uterus that causes excruciating pain that cannot be controlled by over-the-counter meds (Want to know more about Endo? Read our blog post about it here)
- Fibroids and adenomyosis: non-cancerous (benign) growths in the uterus that cause agonising cramps and a heavy flow, according to Masterson (read our Ando blog here)
- Abnormal pregnancy, such as an ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the tubes, outside the uterus) causing cramping outside of your normal cycle
- Complication with IUD (intra-uterine device) used for birth control causing severe pain for more than a few days after implantation
- Ovarian cyst causing a sharp pain on one side
- Narrow cervix caused by cervical stenosis that creates painful pressure in the uterus, according to Anna Klepchukova, MD, ACIM.
So how do you feel about your period pain now? Any other pain-relief remedies you think we should add to the list? If you're ever worried about your cramps, please do not hesitate to consult a medical professional.
Check out these useful links:
Clue: Period and Ovulation Tracker: track your period symptoms to see what, if anything, is recurring at different times in your cycle
Other Modibodi blogs related to period pain.