What Are Menstrual Cramps?
Menstrual cramps are throbbing, aching cramps you get in your lower belly just before and during your period. They’re some of the most common, annoying parts of your period. They can strike right before or during that time of the month. Many women get them routinely.
Cramps can range from mild to severe. They usually happen for the first time a year or two after a girl first gets their period. With age, they usually become less painful and may stop entirely after you have your first baby.
Your doctor may call your cramps dysmenorrhea.
Menstrual Cramp Symptoms
You may have:
- Aching pain in your belly (sometimes severe)
- A feeling of pressure in your belly
- Pain in your hips, lower back, and inner thighs
When cramps are severe, symptoms may include:
- Upset stomach
- Loose stools
What causes period cramps?
Menstrual cramps are most likely caused by an excess of prostaglandins—hormone-like compounds that are released from the uterine lining (the endometrium) as it prepares to be shed. Prostaglandins help the uterus contract and relax, so that the endometrium can detach and flow out of your body. They are a necessary part of the process, but in excess, they cause pain if the uterus contracts strongly, blood flow is reduced, and the supply of oxygen to the uterus muscle tissue decreases, causing pain
For most people with period cramps, it’s still unknown what predisposes them, and not others, to painful menstruation. Inflammation may play a role. The production of prostaglandins is related to inflammation, and inflamed tissue tends to produce more prostaglandins. People who experience more menstrual pain have also been shown to have higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, even after adjustment for factors related to chronic inflammation, like BMI, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Inflammation has also been linked to the worsening of other premenstrual symptoms, including mood changes.
Home remediesHome remedies that may ease your discomfort, and help you get back on track with your busy life.
Take an OTC pain reliever
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin (Bufferin) are effective treatments for period cramps.
These medications work best if they’re taken at the first sign of cramps or pain.
You can find ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, at any drugstore. Be sure to take only as directed, and talk to your doctor first if you have a history of heart, liver, or kidney problems, or if you have asthma, ulcers, or bleeding disorders.
Use a heat patch
Using a heated patch or wrap on your abdomen can help relax the muscles of your uterus. It’s these muscles that cause period cramps. Heat can also boost circulation in your abdomen, which can reduce pain.
According to a 2004 study , wearing a heat wrap for cramps is actually more effective than taking an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, like acetaminophen.
Besides being effective at easing pain and cramps, the research also showed that participants who used a heat wrap had less fatigue and mood swings.
You can find abdominal heat patches at your local drugstore and online. They’re super easy to use. Just peel and stick them on your abdomen.
Electric heating pads and hot water bottles aren’t as convenient to use as patches. But they’re good choices if you’re spending some time at home and don’t need to move around much.
According to a recent study , low-to-medium intensity aerobic exercise can help reduce pain caused by period cramps.
In this study, scientists found that women who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three days a week, for eight weeks, showed significant reductions in period cramps.
To fit an aerobic workout into your schedule, consider biking to work, going for a brisk walk at lunchtime, dancing to your favorite tunes, or playing a sport you enjoy.
Massage your tummy with essential oils
Research suggests that some essential oils can help ease period cramps when massaged onto the abdomen, especially when used in a blend of oils.
Oils that seem to be most effective at reducing period cramps, due to their ability to boost circulation, include:
You can find essential oils online, or at your local health food store. Some drugstores may sell them, too.
Before using essential oils, you’ll want to mix them with a carrier oil, like coconut oil or jojoba oil. Carrier oils work by safely “carrying” the essential oil into your skin, and helping to spread the oil over a large area.
Once your oil mixture is ready to use, rub a few drops between your hands and then give your tummy a gentle massage.
Experts say massaging in a circular motion for just five minutes a day before and during your period may help lessen cramps and boost circulation in your abdomen.
One study suggests that, like aerobic exercise, yoga can also be helpful at reducing period cramps.
In this study, experts found that women who participated in a 60-minute yoga class once a week for 12 weeks showed significant reductions in their period pain.
If you’d like to try yoga, look for a class with both a physical component and a relaxation component. Research suggests this combination is most effective at reducing pain from period cramps.
Soak in a tub
Soaking in a warm bathtub is another way to surround your pelvic muscles with the warmth they need to relax.
You can enhance the pain-relieving power of a good soak by adding a few drops of essential oils — like lavender, sage, or rose — to your bathwater.
Try to relax in a warm bath for at least 15 minutes to get the most benefits from it.
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Avoid caffeine and salty foods
While supplements may help ease period pain, it’s also a good idea to avoid certain foods that can cause water retention, bloating, and discomfort. Some types of foods to stay away from when you have cramps include:
- Salty foods
- fatty foods
According to a 2000 study , a low-fat, vegetarian diet can help reduce period pain and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms.
Several studies suggest that different types of dietary supplements may help reduce period cramps, though it’s not known exactly how they work. Some supplements that show promise in reducing period pain include:
- vitamin B-12 and fish oil
- vitamins B-6, B-1, E, and D, plus magnesium and zinc
You can find dietary supplements at your local drugstore or online. Use as directed, and talk to your doctor if you’re taking any other medications, as they may interact with supplements.
Acupressure is a noninvasive Chinese medicine treatment that’s used for many health issues. This treatment involves using your fingers to apply firm pressure to specific body parts to help ease various symptoms.
According to a 2004 study , rubbing circles on your calf at a point above your ankle can relieve period pain.
The way to do this is to:
- Measure four fingertips up from your inner ankle bone.
- Repeat daily as needed before and during your period.
- Firmly rub this area for several minutes.
According to experts, you’re more likely to have abdominal cramps during your period if you’re dehydrated.
Aim to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. You’ll need more if it’s hot, if you’ve been exercising, or if you simply feel thirsty.
The bottom line
Period cramps are very common, but there are times when they can interfere with your day-to-day life. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ease the pain and discomfort caused by these pesky cramps.
If, however, the pain doesn’t go away after a couple of days, or is so extreme that you have difficulty functioning, be sure to follow up with your doctor.