For some women, cramps can be the bane of monthly cycles. Fortunately, certain treatments can put a stop to painful menstrual cramps.
For many women, menstrual cramps are the harbinger of their monthly menstrual cycle. Menstrual cramps can range from mild to unbearable, and involve lower abdominal cramping, achy discomfort, or extreme pain that comes and goes much like labor pains. As if that’s not enough, menstrual cramps may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
“More than half of women who menstruate have some cramping for one or two days each month, and 15 percent have severe menstrual cramps,” says Carol Livoti, MD, a gynecologist in New York City and fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
But there are ways to help make the misery of menstrual cramps go away.
What Causes Menstrual Cramps?
Menstrual cramps are contractions — tightening and relaxing of the uterine muscle — that enable the shedding of the bloody uterine lining. When the uterine lining breaks down and sheds itself each month, hormone-like substances called prostaglandins are released and can cause pain and inflammation. These substances can increase the contractions’ intensity, especially if prostaglandin levels are particularly high.
“Women with high levels of prostaglandins tend to have more severe menstrual cramping,” says Dr. Livoti. As the uterine lining is shed, contractions push the old tissue through the cervix and out of the body via the vagina. If a woman’s cervical canal is narrow, the pain can be particularly intense when clots or pieces of tissue pass through the cervix.
Menstrual cramps often start shortly before the menstrual period, peak 24 hours later, and get much better after a day or two. However, some women have mild cramping throughout their entire menstrual period.
Who Gets Menstrual Cramps?
Severe menstrual cramps are most common in teenagers, often beginning one to two years after a young girl starts having periods. Menstrual cramps usually improve and become less bothersome as a woman gets older. Women who have given birth are also less likely to be plagued by painful periods, perhaps because childbirth enlarges the cervix.
Although most women have some monthly discomfort, some have pain so severe that it interferes with daily life. Severe menstrual cramps caused by uterine contractions and prostaglandins released by the onset of menstrual bleeding are described as primary dysmenorrhea. When severe cramping is caused by a disease or physical problem, it is known as secondary dysmenorrhea.
Physical problems that can cause secondary dysmenorrhea include endometriosis, a condition in which tissue from the uterine lining grows outside the uterus; fibroids, which are non-cancerous growths in the uterus; and pelvic infections.
Treating Menstrual Cramps
Over-the-counter and prescription medication can help ease the pain of menstrual cramping; at the other extreme, pelvic surgery may be a last resort for secondary dysmenorrhea.
Natural Remedies for Menstrual Cramps
Some women find that certain natural remedies can help:
- Exercise. For mild cramps, get physical. Aerobics Workouts, such as walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming, produce brain chemicals called endorphins that help block pain.
- Heat. Taking a warm bath or applying a hot water bottle or heating pad to your lower abdomen can often soothe cramping that isn’t extremely severe. “This works well for aching types of menstrual cramps,” says Livoti.
- Massage. Try doing some circular light massages around your abdomen, recommends Livoti. Or ask your partner to massage that area of your body.
- Calcium. Research suggests that calcium supplements may help ease the discomfort of menstrual cramps and the emotional symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. “Calcium has been associated with lessening of menstrual spasms in a handful of studies,” says Livoti.
- Aromatherapy. In one small Korean study, topically applied aromatherapy with rose, lavender, or sage oils significantly relieved menstrual cramp discomfort. In the study, the oils were rubbed into the lower abdomen area.
- Acupuncture. Two reviews have suggested that acupuncture may also help ease the pain of menstrual cramps. In addition, a recent clinical trial found that patients with severe menstrual pain who received 15 acupuncture treatments over three months had less cramping during their periods than women who didn’t have acupuncture.