How Menstrual Cramps Are Treated

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Menstrual cramps are a natural result of the uterus contracting when it sheds its lining each month as part of your menstrual cycle. Though most women experience some degree of cramping at some time in their lives, the pain isn't something you "just have to live with." A number of at-home, over-the-counter, and surgical treatment options are available to help you treat menstrual cramps.

Your symptoms play a role in determining treatment. Many younger women have primary dysmenorrhea, or cramps caused by hormonal changes in the body. These changes are felt most significantly by those who are new to menstruation and can be mild to severe. The at-home and over-the-counter treatment options described below are good ways to begin treating these types of cramps, since they're effective for many women.

For most, cramping lessens with age. However, endometriosis, fibroid tumors, ovarian cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease, and other conditions can cause painful cramping (called secondary dysmenorrhea, since it arises from a second condition) even past menopause. Other possible causes of cramps, particularly after age 25, include adenomyosis and infection. If you consistently have pain during your period, you should make an appointment to see your gynecologist.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

There are several things you can do on your own to treat menstrual cramps. Though your pain may seem more significant than these suggestions, many find adequate relief using them. Try these leading up to and during each day of your cycle to reduce cramping:

  • Get regular exercise: Try walking to prevent or at least reduce the severity of menstrual cramps. If you are in too much pain to exercise, consider a more gentle type of exercise like an aquatic-based program or yoga.
  • Use heat: Taking a warm bath with aromatherapy or using a heating pad on your lower abdomen and back is often helpful.
  • Make dietary changes: Avoiding foods that promote inflammation, such as caffeine, dairy, red meat, and alcohol, can help ease period pain as well.

DIY Heating Pad

If you don't have a heating pad, you can make one by filling a sock (a long tube sock works best) with rice, knotting it closed, and heating it in a microwave for a minute or two.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, used around the clock at the first sign of your period help to reduce the severity of cramps in many women by inhibiting the release of prostaglandins. For many women, this is the easiest option for reducing menstrual pain quickly. If pain relievers don't work, however, be sure to talk with your doctor: it may be a sign of a serious condition.

Prescriptions

Oral contraceptives effectively reduce or eliminate menstrual cramps for some women and are often a first-line treatment. Consider the side effects of some oral contraceptives before using them.

If you have a chronic condition that is causing your cramps, such as endometriosis, your doctor can prescribe something stronger than over-the-counter pain medication to help. Hormone-reducing medications like gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists may be an option, though some have serious side effects, such as inducing temporary menopause.

Other symptoms that may come with your period, such as nausea, can be relieved through prescription medication as well. Always take painkillers with food to prevent stomach discomfort.

Severe sudden cramps, vomiting, or fever may be a sign of a medical emergency. If you experience any of these, contact your physician immediately or go to the emergency room.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

More serious conditions that cause painful cramps—such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and cysts—may warrant surgery.

Hysterectomy is an option for fibroids and endometriosis, but alternatives are available. Another procedure used to shrink and remove fibroids is called uterine fibroid embolization.

You and your doctor may also wish to involve a gastroenterologist in your care, since surgery for uterine conditions can affect the bowels and intestine.

Unfortunately, diagnosing abnormal uterine conditions can be challenging, since many women will have a normal pelvic exam despite experiencing serious symptoms. Getting to the root of this kind of condition may take some time.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Diet and lifestyle changes, along with herbal remedies and supplements, may help manage cramps.

For example, there is some evidence fish oil and magnesium can reduce cramps and the discomfort associated with them. Zinc, calcium, and B vitamins obtained in food and supplements have also been found to reduce cramps, bloating, and other symptoms.

Other herbal remedies, such as Viburnum prunifolium (blackhaw), Scutellaria baicalensis (skullcap), and Cimicifuga racemosa (black cohosh), have an antispasmodic effect that may reduce some menstrual cramps.

Vitex agnus-castus (chasteberry), used historically to alter hormone levels, has some evidence to support its use for cramps.

Ginger supplementation has also been found to reduce severity and duration of cramps and pain in recent studies.

Starting two days before your period, or whenever you usually experience the start of cramps, consider making a daily cup of tea combining some of these herbs for a soothing way to give them a try.

Since stress has been linked to cramps, taking time to slow down and relax may also help your overall symptoms.

Note that you should always check with your doctor before taking supplements to make sure they don't interfere with any other medications you may be taking. Chasteberry, for example, should not be used by women who have or have had breast cancer, or those who have Parkinson's disease.

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