Dealing with Menstrual Cramps and Painful Periods

What Causes Them and What You Can Do

Girl with stomach cramps or pains
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If you are like most women, you have probably experienced menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, at one time or another. For some women, menstrual cramps are debilitating, while others experience only mild discomfort or nothing at all during their period.

There are two types of menstrual cramps:

  • Primary dysmenorrhea occurs most often in young women who have just begun their menstrual cycles. It often becomes less severe when a woman reaches her mid-twenties or after she has her first child. These uncomfortable cramps are strong contractions of the uterus and triggered by substances in your body called prostaglandins.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhea is diagnosed when menstrual cramps are the result of a health condition other than your period, including endometriosis, fibroid tumors, and ovarian cysts.

Symptoms

Symptoms of menstrual cramps can vary by the individual, with some women experiencing a dull, throbbing achee while other have intense and often debilitating pain radiating to the lower back and thighs.

The pain tends to start one to three days before your period, peak 24 hours after the onset of your period, and subsides in two to three days. Some women will also have nausea, headache, dizziness, and loose stools.

When to See a Doctor

Schedule an appointment to see your gynecologist if menstrual cramps are interfering with your quality of life, are progressively worsening, or have started suddenly and without explanation after the age of 25.

Causes

A healthy body naturally produces prostaglandins, which have a hormone-like effect. They are involved in a variety of bodily functions including the uterine muscle contraction that causes primary dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps.

At the beginning of your period, your body's prostaglandin level is higher than usual. Generally, the higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more menstrual pain. By contrast, if you don't ovulate, either because of birth control or menopause, the risk of cramping is low to non-existent.

The risk of severe menstrual cramps is greater if you smoke, are under 30, have heavy or irregular bleeding, began puberty before 12, or have a family history of severe cramping.

Treatment

It might sound simple, but relaxing and letting those around you know that you are not feeling yourself will help by reducing the stress of your everyday life that may contribute to your menstrual cramps. There are other lifestyle and pharmaceutical options that can help.

Lifestyle: If you are prone to cramping, make an effort to engage in regular physical activity when you are not having your period. The more active and regular you are with exercise, the more regular your periods will be. Regular periods often translate to a less heavy flow and fewer cramps.

Dietary changes, such as eating fresh and healthy food, may also help. Try focusing on healthier eating, focusing on the following foods:

  • Calcium-rich foods, such as dried figs, ricotta cheese, broccoli, almonds, and canned sardines
  • Foods high in antioxidants, such as berries, kale, tomatoes, bell pepper, and dark chocolate
  • Lean proteins, including tofu and cold-water fish

By contrast, try consuming significantly less refined flour or sugar, trans-fats (hydrogenated oils), caffeine, and alcohol.

If you have severe cramps, trying taking a warm bath or placing a heating pad on your lower abdomen or back to help alleviate the pain. Keeping well hydrated also helps.

Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Motrin (ibuprofen), aspirin, Aleve (naproxen sodium) are commonly used to relieve everyday pain and menstrual cramps. Tylenol (acetaminophen) will help the pain, but it does not affect prostaglandins.

If cramps are severe, the doctor may prescribe oral contraceptives to prevent ovulation ease painful periods. A hormonal intrauterine device (IUD) can sometimes reduce menstrual cramps, too. Common side effects of hormonal contraceptives include abnormal bleeding, weight gain, and mood changes.

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Some studies have shown that complementary therapies, including massage, acupuncture, and yoga can help alleviate menstrual cramps, but the results are far from conclusive.

 Other studies show promising results for some women who have taken certain supplements and herbs to treat their cream (including teas, pills, and tinctures), but again none seem conclusive enough to endorse as a standalone treatment.

Remember that taking supplements or herbal remedies can cause side effects just like pharmaceutical drugs do. If you seek medical attention for your symptoms, be sure to disclose any and all supplements you take to your healthcare provider.

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