Menstrual Cramps

What are Menstrual Cramps?

A woman’s menstrual cycle is often accompanied by cramping pains as the uterus contracts to shed the lining so it can be refreshed.

Over half of women experiencing monthly periods report cramps as one of their symptoms. Mild to moderate cramping is not abnormal, but severe cramping can interrupt your life.

Also known as dysmenorrhea, this condition either has no distinct cause or arises due to issues with the uterus, ovaries, or other part of the woman’s reproductive system.

What are the Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps?

Symptoms include:

  • Pain that spreads across the lower abdomen, lower back, inner thighs, hips, or stomach
  • Cramps that precede menstruation by a few days or last longer than the bleeding
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to stimulus like smells, sounds, and light levels
  • Difficulty sleeping due to the pain

Menstrual Cramps Causes

Menstrual cramps are primarily caused by contractions of the uterus. During a woman’s period, hormone-like substances, such as prostaglandins, are released. These trigger contractions in the uterine muscles which expels the lining. Higher levels of prostaglandins are known to cause more severe cramps.

If the contractions are severe, they may restrict blood flow to the uterus. These pains can be very severe.

There are also several other potential causes of menstrual cramps. The lining of the uterus can become implanted outside of the uterus. The lining of the uterus can also grow into the uterus wall. In some women, the opening of the cervix can be so small that it restricts the outflow, putting pressure on the uterus. Also non-cancerous growths called uterine fibroids can grow in the wall of the uterus and cause pain. STDs can also cause inflammation, leading to pain.

How are Menstrual Cramps Treated?

Unless you have a fever or discharge accompanying your cramps, you can treat your menstrual cramps at home. Heating pads, over-the-counter pain killers, exercises that stretch the pelvic muscles, and self-massage on the abdomen all reduce the pain. If the cramps become disabling or persist for years, your doctor may prescribe birth control medications or other medications to limit bleeding and reduce cramping intensity.

Antibiotics may be necessary for cramps worsened by infections or sexually transmitted diseases, while surgery is only helpful in cases complicated by uterine abnormalities or fibroids. Extensive testing is needed to determine the cause of severe menstrual cramps, but finding the cause is essential for controlling the pain.

Menstrual Cramps Prevention

Much of the pain caused by period cramps is caused by inflammation. There are many great ways to reduce inflammation. Increasing the ratio of carbs to fat in your diet can help, as a high fat to carb ratio can lead to inflammation. Foods such as garlic, hot peppers, ginger, fatty fish like salmon, and nuts have all been shown to reduce inflammation. Reduce consumption of foods such as refined carbohydrates, fried foods, soda and other sugar sweetened beverages, red meat, and margarine, as these have all been shown to increase inflammation.

There have also been studies showing that supplements can greatly alleviate pain. In one study a group of teens were given vitamin B1, fish oil, a placebo, or B1 and fish oil. The teens that received the B1, fish oil, or both all reported significantly less pain from menstrual cramps. The pain also didn’t last as long. The amounts were 100 milligrams of B1 per day and 500 mg of fish oil per day. Magnesium has also been shown to help.

Massage with essential oil has also been shown to reduce the pain of cramps. In one study, women used a mixture of lavender, clary sage, and marjoram essential oils in a 2-1-1 ratio diluted to a 3% concentration in unscented cream (three ml of oil mixture to 97 ml of cream) to massage their abdomen. The women who used the essential oil mixture reported less pain than the control group that simply used synthetic fragrance, though both groups did report improvement. The pain for the essential oils group was reduced from 2.4 to 1.8 days.

Heating pads applied to the abdomen have also been shown by several studies to be highly effective at reducing pain. One study even found them to be as effective as Advil or Motrin for reducing pain.