Formally known as dysmenorrhea, period cramps are a normal part of life for those with a uterus. It’s a typical, albeit frustrating, part of your menstrual cycle. The pain can be felt as muscle cramping in the lower abdomen which can spread to other areas such as the lower back and thighs. Your period pain can also vary each period because there are a lot of external factors that affect it. Things like exercise (3 Top Positions for Period Cramps), diet – or even acupuncture - can provide relief. You might notice that sometimes you have very little period cramping, whilst other times it could be a ten out of ten on the pain chart. You can even have cramping before or after your period, and during ovulation.
With all these variables it can be hard to tell if your period pain is ‘normal’, if you need to see a doctor, and what factors you can change to hopefully ease your monthly cramping.
What causes period cramps?
Period cramps can be caused by a lot of things, but the actual cramp is caused when the muscle wall of the uterus contracts. Your uterus has contractions to help shed your uterine lining. When the walls of your uterus tighten, it temporarily cuts off the blood and oxygen supply to the uterus. This is when your body releases chemicals that cause pain, in order to alert you to the cut supply of oxygen. Your body then produces chemicals called prostaglandins that cause the uterus to contract even more.
Period cramps can also be caused by underlying medical conditions. Most commonly, people with a uterus who are in their 30s and 40s are most affected. These are conditions such as ovarian cysts, endometriosis, fibroids, Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases (PID), and adenomyosis. They can also be caused by contraceptive methods such as intrauterine devices (IUDs).
How long do period cramps last?
It is completely dependent upon the person; some people have their cramps at the start of the actual bleeding, whereas some have it days before or after the bleeding begins or ends. Typically period cramps are at their worst when the bleeding is at its heaviest, and the cramps last anywhere from 2 to 3 days on average. Most will notice an improvement in period pain as they get older, or after they have had children, if there is no underlying cause for their period pain.
What menstrual product is best to wear for period cramps?
There are some myths about period products causing cramps. Tampons and menstrual cups should not cause additional cramping on your period. If you are having any pain, it probably means they aren’t sitting correctly. Whether you wear a menstrual cup, tampon, period underwear, pads, or even free bleed, whatever works best for you, is right to wear.
How to stop period cramps immediately
Alright, so all of that is great to know, but how can I stop the pain right now?
Taking over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, or naproxen, can ease period cramps. These are recommended for menstrual pain, and they help to lower prostaglandin, that chemical we talked about earlier.
Whether you choose a heating pad, hot water bottle, warm bath, or similar, applying heat to the source of the cramping has been shown to relieve pain. This study shows that heat could almost be as effective as pain medicine.
Having an orgasm can help with pain relief! This is because the brain releases neurotransmitters, or endorphins, during an orgasm. These endorphins help to decrease pain perception and provide temporary relief from menstrual cramps.
There have been studies which demonstrate that using acupuncture, directly on areas experiencing period cramps, has helped to relieve them.
A hot cup of tea might have the ability to relieve cramping; just be sure to avoid the ones with caffeine. Herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, ginger, or fennel, have been used for centuries to provide relief for the pain.
A good abdominal massage can provide temporary relief for period pain.
How to get rid of period cramps in the long run
These suggestions can be implemented over time to make sure you get some relief when you are on your next period.
Changing your diet has been shown time and time again to provide relief for period cramps. Eating foods with a high water content - like cucumber, berries, and watermelon - can help us stay hydrated and increase blood flow which reduces period cramps. Eating flaxseed can help reduce swelling, whereas walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and almonds can reduce cramping. Chicken, fish, and dark green vegetables will also provide you with a good source of iron.
Maintaining an exercise routine can provide pain relief by not only releasing feel-good endorphins, but strengthening your pelvic floor muscles has also been shown to relieve period cramps.
Taking regular supplements to ensure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs is important. Magnesium has been found to ease pain, and Vitamin D has been found to reduce inflammation, as well as Vitamin E. Just be sure to consult with your primary care doctor to make sure it’s okay to add these to your diet.
Stress can often make period pain much worse. Deep breathing, grounding exercises, and yoga can all work together to make you less tense, more relaxed, and help to eliminate some of the pain you might be feeling.
Contraceptives are not just to prevent pregnancy; doctors often prescribe birth control methods for excruciating periods. These hormones help to balance yours and make periods less heavy and painful. There are many types of hormonal birth controls that may be offered to you, such as an IUD, an oral pill, an injection, or an implant.
When to see a doctor
Period pain is normal, but there often comes a point where it becomes unbearable. Despite some stigma, there should be no shame about having a period.
But, there are a few things you should look out for if your pain is bothering you; pain is a spectrum, and if you’ve dealt with painful periods your entire life, you might now know if something is wrong. If your cramping lasts for more than two days, interferes with your daily life or routines, can’t be managed with over-the-counter remedies, or suddenly becomes more severe, it might be best to see your health provider. Your doctor can guide you through a care plan, run tests, and help your monthly menstrual pain become more manageable.