Many of us have been there: curled up on the couch, four bars of chocolate deep, gritted teeth, all because Aunt Flo kicked us in the tummy. It's no secret that period pain can sometimes cramp your style. But have you ever wondered what causes period pain, and if it's healthy? In fact, these are some of the most Googled enquiries, with some girls querying mild discomfort and others questioning debilitating pain that interferes with, well, simply living their best life. Stay tuned for the rundown on all things cramps.
What are period cramps?
The medical name for period cramps is Dysmenorrhoea (say: di-smeh-nuh-ree-uh), literally meaning 'difficult monthly flow' in Greek. According to Webmd, cramps occur due to hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins (say: pross-tuh-GLAN-dinz) that "stimulate the uterine muscles to contract" and then shed its lining, resulting in a period.
Dr. Christine Masterson, chief of the women and children's service line at Summit Medical Group in New Jersey, explains that "Uterine lining builds up over the course of your cycle, and the uterus responds with cramping as a method to control the bleeding [during menstruation] … If you have a lot of menstrual blood or a blood clot, sometimes the uterus will cramp to expel that".
Your prostaglandins levels cause feelings of cramping and heaviness in the pelvis, as well as pain in the lower back, belly, and even legs. Some girls experience nausea, upset stomach, weakness, and/or paleness too.
"It may seem weird that cramping would be genetic, but it appears to be true. If other girls and women in your family are crampers, you might be a cramper, too," says Mary L. Gavin, MD. Ask a female relative like an older sister, mum, cousin, or grandmother if she has cramps with her period. "You'll still be cramping but at least you'll know you're not alone! And the good news is that cramps often get better the older you get," according to Gavin.
How do I cure period cramps?
Cramps can be a little annoying or extremely painful, and they can last for a few days. To crush those cramps, Jean Hailes, a national nonprofit focused on women's health, recommends the following:
- Apply heat on the lower belly or back to relax muscles. There's nothin' like cuddling a hot water bottle or heat pack!
- Exercise to release endorphins (chemicals in the body that make you feel good). Try out gentle exercise like yoga, or, if you're feeling up to it, go on a run to breathe in some fresh air!
- Relax with rest, warm baths (ahh...feel those cramps floating away), or meditation to relieve stress. Try out aromatherapy oils for some extra zen. For that time of the month, Organic Aromas recommends Lavender, Eucalyptus, Rose, Ylang-Ylang, and Chamomile scents.
- Take over-the-counter pain-relief medications at the onset of pain and take regularly during the days you normally have pain. Discuss the pros and cons of using them with your doctor and/or a parent.
When should I call the doctor?
According to the Center for Young Women's Health, in most cases, period cramps are super inconvenient but generally nothing more than a healthy body's reaction to the natural shedding of the uterine lining. However, Krishna Wood White, MD, MPH recommends that you call the doctor if you:
- don't feel better after trying home treatments
- feel very sad or hopeless
- ever think about hurting yourself
- can't do your usual activities because of your PMS symptoms
- have PMS symptoms that don't go away after the first few days of your period
Worried you're ovary-acting? Don't be. It's always better to check in with a medical professional to see what's going on and seek advice on how to relieve bothersome cramps so you can get back to your fun, funky, fresh self ASAP!
My period pain meds aren't working
Keep in mind that there are some more serious conditions that can cause cramps too. Traci C. Johnson, MD suggests that you talk to your doctor if you think you're experiencing any of the following:
- Endometriosis: uterine tissue that appears outside the uterus that causes excruciating pain that cannot be controlled by over-the-counter meds (Want to know more about Endo? Read our blog post about it here)
- Fibroids and adenomyosis: non-cancerous (benign) growths in the uterus that cause agonising cramps and heavy flow (read our Ando blog here)
- Ovarian cyst causing sharp pain on one side
- Narrow cervix caused by cervical stenosis that creates painful pressure in the uterus
So, how do you feel about your period pain now? Any other pain-relief remedies you think we should add to the list? If you're ever worried about your cramps, please do not hesitate to consult a medical professional – as they always know best!
Check out these cool links:
Clue: Period and Ovulation Tracker: track your period symptoms to see if anything is recurring at different times in your cycle