Period cramps affect nearly 90 percent of menstruators at some point in their lives. They’re generally worse in the five years following one’s first period and are usually much less severe after childbirth. The time in between those two transformational life events? A cramp free-for-all. Here’s what you need to know about menstrual cramps — and how to outsmart them.
What causes period cramps?
Menstrual cramps — the vague, frustrating, sometimes debilitating condition also known as dysmenorrhea — are caused by a hormone called endometrial prostaglandin. Prostaglandins are a group of hormones that target many organ systems, especially the uterus, gut, blood platelet cells and nervous system. Prostaglandins are produced by the endometrial lining, which builds up and then sloughs off each month during the menstrual cycle. The thicker the lining, the more prostaglandins are released and the more likely a person is to have period cramps. Therefore those with heavier, longer periods are more likely to get cramps.
What do menstrual cramps feel like?
Cramps usually start on the first day of bleeding and may continue for several days. There is no specific test to make a diagnosis for cramps, and there’s no blood test to check your prostaglandin level. Rather, dysmenorrhea is a clinical diagnosis based on symptoms which include menstrual cramps and/or any combination of backache, nausea, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, or flu-like symptoms. Severe dysmenorrhea can impact your day-to-day life, and can cause depression and anxiety in addition to the physical manifestations of this all-too-common disorder. Imagine feeling like you have the flu for three days every month!
Period cramp relief
We know that cramps are more common in adolescents and tend to diminish in adulthood, especially after pregnancy and childbirth. As hormone levels find a happier equilibrium in one’s 20s and 30s, the pain and severity of cramps often diminishes. In the meantime, there are a few period pain remedies:
For less severe menstrual cramps, ibuprofen, which interferes with the actions of prostaglandins, is a common and readily available treatment. Don’t wait — the best time to start taking ibuprofen is with the first twinges of cramp pain.
Hormonal birth control
Taking hormonal birth control can also reduce the severity of period cramps. Hormonal contraception (pills, rings, patches) and hormonal intrauterine devices (IUDs) reduce the buildup of the endometrium, reducing the amount of prostaglandin produced. This is the gold standard treatment for severe dysmenorrhea.
Natural home remedies for menstrual cramps
There are also some great natural home remedies for cramps that are worth giving a try.
Watch what you eat
Eating a healthy, well-rounded diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting regular exercise are good first steps in cramp prevention. In addition, adding (or subtracting) certain foods like salt or processed sugars from your diet, and taking supplements containing ingredients like magnesium and vitamin D may help alleviate cramps by reducing bloating and discomfort.
Try a heating patch or pad
Heating pads are a tried and true method of menstrual cramp relief. Bulky water bottles and plug-in pads used to be the only product available, but these days you’ve got options. LOLA’s heating patch is disposable and so discreet you can wear it anywhere, any time of day. Simply adhere the patch to your underwear or clothing wherever you’re feeling sore for up to 11 hours of cramp relief.
Rub on some essential oil
You can also try massaging your abdomen or back with essential oils for cramps. Oils like capsaicin, lavender, chamomile, or geranium can trigger your senses with a relaxing aroma and provide local stimulation of the nerve fibers in the skin for relief.
Period cramps can be a painful fact of life and even a rite of passage for many, but it doesn’t hurt to know your options and find the one that works best for you.