What are Period Cramps?
Period cramps, menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea happen to women about six months to year after experiencing their first period. The cramps present a throbbing or cramping pain in the lower abdomen, specifically before and during menstruation. Most women experience some degree of cramping during their menstrual cycles, but some women experience severe period cramps that interfere with their everyday activities. Menstrual cramps generally ease with age and sometimes even after pregnancy and childbirth. (x) (x)
Continuous menstrual pain may be a sign of a more severe and identifiable medical condition. For example, pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and cervical stenosis can cause pain that mimics period cramps. The medical industry calls pain associated with these conditions as secondary dysmenorrhea, whereas pain only associated with menstruation they call primary dysmenorrhea. (x)
Several over-the-counter medications, chiropractic care, massage and natural supplements can help relieve period pain, such as chamomile, fennel, and ginger.
Causes of Period Cramps
Period cramps are a common symptom of menstruation and ovulation. Prostaglandins are chemicals in the uterus lining. Because of these chemicals, the uterus expels its lining monthly if there is no sperm in the body to fertilize an egg. The prostaglandins cause the muscles in the uterus to contract, causing blood flow to the uterus lining and painful cramps in the lower abdomen. (x)
Although painful and sometimes inconvenient, period cramps are a natural occurrence, and they are simply the body’s way of adapting to and dealing with the menstruation process. Most of the time, they only last between two and four days and show up one or two days before the cycle begins. The pain may be mild or severe, but it usually diminishes with age. However, if the symptoms get noticeably worse or start after age 25, it may be a sign of something more severe, and it wouldn’t hurt to seek medical attention. More severe causes of period pain can include pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical stenosis, uterine fibroids and endometriosis. (x)
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection that causes inflammation from the cervix to the peritoneal cavity. The fallopian tubes also become inflamed, leading to more severe health and fertility issues, such as ectopic pregnancy and chronic pelvic pain. The infection may spread through sexually transmitted bacteria, such as Chlamydia trachomatis. Abnormal vaginal discharge, metrorrhagia and postcoital bleeding are other warning signs of PID. The condition naturally causes period cramps or similar symptoms in the pelvic region near the lower abdomen and the lower back. Sometimes antibiotics can treat PID, but severe cases often require hospitalization. (x)
- Cervical Stenosis
Cervical stenosis is a condition in which the passageway from the vagina to the cervix narrows or blocks completely. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus. Usually, women develop cervical stenosis through menopause as cervical tissue thins, cervical or endometrial cancer, surgery involving the cervix or radiation treatment for cervical or endometrial cancer. Most of the time, the condition does not cause any symptoms. But sometimes, cervical stenosis can cause painful period cramps and other symptoms such as abnormal bleeding or no bleeding at all. It may even cause infertility because sperm cannot fertilize an egg if it cannot penetrate the cervix. If there are symptoms, doctors treat cervical stenosis with a procedure to widen the cervix. (x) If you notice abnormal or more painful periods or cramps, consult your healthcare provider.
- Uterine Fibroids
Uterine fibroids are benign, non-cancerous growths in the uterus that usually develop in the reproductive years when there is more estrogen in the body, between 16 and 50. Fibroids can swell when estrogen levels are high — during pregnancy or if the patient takes birth control pills with estrogen. But each time a woman gives birth, the risk decreases. Patients usually discover uterine fibroids by accident. Because most cases are asymptomatic, doctors may find the growths during routine pelvic examinations that use clinical imaging. When the fibroids cause symptoms, patients can experience painful cramps, heavy bleeding, uterine bleeding, pelvic pressure, bowel dysfunction or constipation, low back pain and urinary retention. They may also cause fertility issues or miscarriage. (x)
Endometrial implants have tissue that is usually in the uterus and prepare the uterus for ovulation. But endometriosis develops when these implants grow outside of the uterus, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, peritoneum or the lymph nodes. The condition forms even deeper as the body responds to menstrual hormones, and the tissue thickens and breaks down, and blood flows. The body sheds the tissue during menstruation in the uterus, but it won’t shed if it is outside the uterus. Endometriosis causes severe period cramps, heavy bleeding and painful sex. It may also cause infertility and increase the risk for ovarian cancer. Usually, the pain subsides after menopause because the body no longer produces estrogen. (x)
Accompanying Symptoms of Period Cramps
In addition to painful cramps, menstrual periods can cause other symptoms, including:
- Lower Back Pain
Menstruation may also cause pain in the back. Contractions in the uterus during menstruation that spread throughout the pelvic area causes low back pain. When the body tries to get rid of the uterine lining, it puts pressure on the blood vessels in the pelvic region and limits oxygen to muscles in the back or thighs, causing pain. The cramps usually begin a few days before the cycle begins and can last for a few days after it ends. (x) (x)
Another common characteristic of menstruation is headaches. The severity of the headache differs based on the individual, but generally, they begin a few days before the period. The medical industry calls headaches at the beginning of the cycle menstrual migraines. Before the menstrual period starts, estrogen levels drop, and it increases the risk of migraines, possibly because estrogen helps the brain perceive pain. Without it, the body has a more challenging time reducing pain. (x) (x)
Nausea is a common symptom that accompanies period cramps. It is the body’s gastrointestinal response to the pain. The body releases the chemical prostaglandin during the menstrual period, and it enters the bloodstream, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headaches. Hormones may also fluctuate during menstruation, and the stomach may produce more gastric juices that induce nausea. Menstrual migraines may also trigger the feeling. (x)
Other characteristics include bloating, fatigue, pain in the legs and hips, diarrhea and mood changes.
Remedies for Period Cramps
Various over-the-counter medications may effectively treat menstrual cramps. For example, anti-prostaglandins can ease cramps, blood flow, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can relieve pain. But these drugs have their harsh side effects. (x)
- Birth Control Pills
Sometimes physicians prescribe hormonal birth control pills that reduce cramps by preventing ovulation. The hormones in the pills affect the uterine lining, making it thinner in order to reduce cramps and blood flow. Starting hormone treatment early in life can have its drawbacks. (x)
- Home Remedies
Exercise and massage therapy are two natural ways that may help relieve period cramps. Applying heat to the abdomen with a hot water bottle or soaking in a hot bath is another form of relief and relaxation. (x) Massaging essential oils such as lavender or chamomile to the abdomen may help ease pain. (x) Masturbation or orgasms can also help relieve period pain. (x)
Supplements for Period Cramps
Some supplements derived from natural sources may help relieve menstrual pain. However, supplements are not a replacement for actual medical treatment. Always consult with a doctor before taking supplements and follow a doctor’s instructions for dosage and use. Some supplements to consider:
Chamomile supplements and chamomile tea are excellent herbal remedies to ease period cramps. Glycine is a chemical compound commonly found in chamomile tea, and research shows that glycine can relax tension in the nerves that cause contractions and relieve pain. (x) Chamomile tea also contains hippurate, which helps fight infections and may prevent complications. (x) The recommended dosage for chamomile extract is 800 mg once or twice a day, as needed.
Ginger continues to work as a pain-relieving herbal treatment for centuries, but it is also an excellent anti-inflammatory and can help fight inflammation during menstrual periods. It can also reduce menstrual bleeding. However, the supplement may cause mild side effects such as heartburn or abdominal discomfort. Take ginger root extract in 1,000 mg once a day with water to avoid heartburn as a dietary supplement.
With a distinct fragrance, fennel and fennel seeds are a natural remedy that may help relieve period cramps by relaxing the uterus. They may also act as a natural replacement for painkillers. However, it is essential to speak with a doctor before taking this supplement. The recommended dosage for fennel extract powder is 1,000 mg once or twice a day.
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The Bottom Line
Period cramps, otherwise known as menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea, cause pain in the abdomen before or during menstruation. During the cycle, the uterus sheds its lining, causing blood flow and the muscles to contract, which causes cramps in the lower abdomen. It may also cause pain in other areas around the pelvic region, such as the lower back, hips and thighs.
Menstruation can cause other accompanying characteristics, such as headaches, nausea, bloating and fatigue. Period cramps are a natural symptom of menstruation, but sometimes they can indicate more serious conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical stenosis, endometriosis and uterine fibroids. If period pains worsen or begin after age 25, consult a doctor to rule out any medical conditions.
You can treat period cramps with over-the-counter medication, hormonal birth control pills and home remedies like exercise and massage therapy. Supplements like chamomile, ginger and fennel may also relieve the pain, but they should not replace medical treatment or contradict a doctor’s advice. Consult a physician before taking any new supplements.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.