If your period starts, you've probably had menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea at one point or another. For some, menstrual cramps are exhausting, while others experience only mild or no discomfort during menstruation.
Types of menstrual cramps
Menstrual cramps are of two types :
- Primary dysmenorrhea occurs most often in young women who have just started their menstrual cycle. It often becomes less serious when a woman turns 20 or after giving birth. These cramps are violent contractions of the uterus caused by substances in the body called prostaglandins.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea is diagnosed when menstrual cramps are the result of a health condition other than your period, such as endometriosis , fibroids , and ovarian cysts .
Symptoms of menstrual cramps
Symptoms of menstrual cramps can vary from person to person. Some people experience a dull throbbing pain, while others experience severe and often debilitating pain that radiates to the lower back and hips .
The pain usually starts one to three days before your period, peaks 24 hours after your period starts, and goes away after two to three days. Some people will also have nausea, headache, dizziness, and loose stools .
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your gynecologist if your menstrual cramps worsen your quality of life, gradually worsen, or starts suddenly and without explanation after age 25.
In a healthy body, prostaglandins are produced naturally, which have an effect similar to that of hormones. They are involved in various bodily functions, including the contraction of the muscles of the uterus, which causes primary dysmenorrhea or menstrual cramps .
At the beginning of your period, the level of prostaglandins in your body is higher than normal. Generally, the higher the level of prostaglandins, the more severe the period pain. Conversely, if you are not ovulating due to contraception or menopause, your risk of cramps is low to zero .
It may sound simple, but relaxing and showing others that you're not feeling can help reduce the stresses of everyday life that can contribute to menstrual cramps. There are other lifestyles and medications that can help.
If you are prone to cramps, try to exercise regularly when you are not on your period. The more active and regular you exercise, the more regular your periods will be. Regular periods often result in less heavy bleeding and less cramping .
Diet changes, such as eating fresh, healthy foods, can also help. Try a healthier diet, focusing on the following foods :
- Calcium-rich foods such as dried figs, ricotta cheese, broccoli, almonds, and canned sardines.
- Antioxidant-rich foods like berries, cabbage, tomatoes, bell peppers, and dark chocolate.
- Lean proteins, including tofu and cold-water fish.
Instead, try consuming significantly less refined flour or sugar, trans fats (hydrogenated oils), caffeine, and alcohol .
If you have severe cramps, try taking a warm bath or applying a heating pad to your lower abdomen or back to ease the pain. It also helps maintain a high level of hydration.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Motrin (ibuprofen), aspirin, or Alev (naproxen sodium) are commonly used to relieve daily pain and menstrual cramps. Tylenol (acetaminophen) relieves pain but does not affect prostaglandins.
If the seizures are severe, your doctor may prescribe oral contraceptives to prevent ovulation and relieve painful periods. Sometimes a hormonal intrauterine device (IUD) can also reduce menstrual cramps. Common side effects of hormonal birth control include abnormal bleeding, weight gain, and mood swings .
Alternative and Complementary Medicine (CAM)
Some research has shown that complementary therapies, including massage, acupuncture, and yoga, can help relieve menstrual cramps, but more research is needed .
Other studies show promising results for some women who have taken certain supplements and herbs to treat their creams (including teas, pills, and tinctures), but again, none of them seem convincing enough to support it as a standalone treatment .
Remember that taking supplements or herbal medications can cause side effects, just like pharmaceutical medications. If you seek medical attention for your symptoms, be sure to inform your doctor of any supplements you are taking .