Menstrual Cramps and Painful Periods

Helpful Tips for Pain Relief

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 and secondary.

Primary Dysmenorrhea

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

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.

Hormones and Menstrual Cramps

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.

If a woman does not ovulate, and some months you don't, it is likely that she won't get cramps during her period. For this reason, physicians often prescribe oral contraceptives or a contraceptive patch to ease painful periods. However, you should be aware that birth control pills can have side effects, including abnormal bleeding, weight gain, and mood changes.

A hormonal intrauterine device (IUD) can sometimes reduce menstrual cramps, too.

How Can You Beat Menstrual Cramps?

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.

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

Dietary changes, such as eating fresh and healthy food, may help reduce cramps as well.

Try eating more:

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

Try consuming significantly less:

  • Refined foods: look for white flour or sugar in the ingredients.
  • Trans-fats: listed as hydrogenated oils in the ingredients
  • Caffeine and alcohol

You can also try:

  • Engaging in regular physical activity, when you don't have your period
  • Taking a warm bath and using aromatherapy or a heating pad on your lower abdomen or back 
  • Staying adequately hydrated

What About Complementary and Alternative Therapies?

Some studies show complementary therapies, including massage, acupuncture, and yoga can help alleviate menstrual cramps, but as of yet the results are not conclusive. Other studies show some success for women who take certain supplements and herbs, including teas, pills, and tinctures, but these results are also not conclusive.

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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