Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) or period pains are painful sensations felt in your lower abdomen. They occur both before and during your period. The pain caused by cramps can be dull and annoying, but can sometimes be severe enough to cause extreme pain. The type of effects caused by menstrual cramps varies from woman to woman.
Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual cramps have a broad range of symptoms, all of which manifest in different women differently. You may experience very few or many of these symptoms during your menstrual cycle:
- Bloating in Your Belly Area
- Cramping Pain in Lower Abdomen
- Dull Pain in Lower Abdomen
- Loose Stools
- Pain in Lower Back and Thighs
The two types of painful or difficult periods:
- Primary Dysmenorrhea: This is the most common type of period pain. Pain in your lower abdomen and back that begins around two days before your period starts and can last for up to four days. This type of period pain is not associated with any underlying problem.
- Secondary Dysmenorrhea: This type of period pain is characterized by cramping that is due to an identifiable medical problem. Problems that could be the underlying cause of secondary dysmenorrhea menstrual cramps are:
- Endometriosis: When endometrial tissue appears outside of your uterus and causes pelvic pain
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease: An infection of the female reproductive organs.
- Uterine Fibroids: Benign smooth muscle tumors of your uterus.
Who commonly gets menstrual cramps?
Half of all women experience menstrual cramps. About 15% of women describe their pain during menstrual cramps as severe. Data shows that women who don’t exercise experience more painful menstrual cramps. Certain psychological factors like emotional stress can increase your likelihood of having uncomfortable menstrual cramps.
Additional risk factors for cramps include:
- Being Younger Than 20
- Menorrhagia: Heavy bleeding during your period
- Never Given Birth
- Starting Puberty Early (11 or younger)
Causes of Menstrual Cramps
If there is no sperm to fertilize your eggs during your menstrual period, your uterus contracts and expels its lining. This process is pushed along by your body’s release of hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins. These hormone substances are associated with pain and inflammation in higher levels. Uterine contractions cause the pain felt during menstrual cramps because the contractions prevent too much blood from flowing to your endometrium (the lining of your uterus).
Medical conditions that can cause menstrual cramps:
- Cervical Stenosis: A slowly progressive condition that pinches your spinal cord in your neck.
- Endometriosis: Endometrial tissue appears outside of your uterus and causes pelvic pain
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease: An infection of the female reproductive organs
- Uterine Fibroids: Benign tumors in your uterus
Diagnosing Menstrual Cramps
Usually, you can identify menstrual cramps without the help of your physician. In cases of extreme pain or when you may have underlying conditions contributing to your pain, your doctor may order imaging of your abdominal area, uterus, cervix, vagina, and fallopian tubes. One or more of these tests may be administered:
- Computerized Tomography Scan (CT Scan): A digital imaging method that uses X-Rays to create pictures of cross-sections of your body.
- Hysteroscopy: A procedure where your doctor looks inside your uterus to diagnose and treat causes of abnormal bleeding.
- Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure where a fiber-optic instrument is inserted into your abdominal wall. Because there is a tiny camera and a light attached to one end, your doctor can view your abdominal organs.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): A test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to make pictures of organs and structures inside your body.
- Ultrasound: Creates images of soft tissue structures and other organs and parts of your body.
The cause of menstrual cramps (menstruation) can’t be prevented, but if you take certain steps, you may be able to prevent the cramps themselves from happening.
Different measures can be taken to avoid cramps:
- Acupuncture or Acupressure
- Diet: Eat fruits and vegetables. Limit your intake of fat, alcohol, caffeine, salt, and sweets
- Fitness: Exercising regularly is known to result in less menstrual cramping
- Reduce Stress: Meditation and relaxation techniques can be employed to ease the tension in your body awakened by menstrual cramps
- Smoking: Quitting smoking automatically reduces inflammation levels in your body
Over-the-counter medication is used to treat most cases of menstrual cramping. Birth control pills will help prevent ovulation and reduce the severity of your cramps.
Other known cures/treatments for menstrual cramps include:
- Chamomile Tea
- Chinese Herbal Medicines
- Heating Pads
- Soaking in a Hot Bath
- Supplements (Vitamin E, Thiamin, Omega-3)
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation
If your menstrual cramps are due to an underlying medical condition like endometriosis or fibroids you may require surgery to resolve your issues and remove abnormal tissue.
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