What are Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains?

Menstrual Cramps are most commonly known as period pains. Professionals and doctors refer this condition as dysmenorrhea. Menstrual cramps or period pains are associated with a feeling of minor or severe pain in the lower abdomen of a woman before and during the menstrual period. Most women can get away with this condition without severe pains but menstrual cramps or period pains can be severe in a few women. Menstrual cramps can be very uncomfortable and it can made it harder for a woman to carry out routine activities.

Menstrual cramps or period pains do not start until the ovum has moved into the fallopian tube from the ovaries of a woman, a process referred as ovulation. Before reading about the causes of menstrual cramps or period pains, let us know about the types of menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps or period pains are classified into two types: Primary and Secondary menstrual cramps.

  • Primary Menstrual Cramps: This type of menstrual cramps or period pains are associated with a normal process of menstruation without any associated gynecologic disorder. This is more common of the two menstrual cramps affecting more than 50% of the women. However, only 15% of the women undergo a severe pain during primary menstrual cramps. Primary menstrual cramps are more common in women during young age when they are girls and becomes less severe as they reach maturity. Some women also feel lesser cramps after first pregnancy. Such cramps usually starts one or two days before the start of periods and can last for two to four days.
  • Secondary Menstrual Cramps: Secondary menstrual cramps or period pains are associated with some sort of gynecologic disorder such as pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine fibroids or endometriosis etc. However, these conditions can be rectified through treatments involving surgery and medications. This type of menstrual cramps is more common in mature women.

Causes of Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

Primary menstrual cramps or period pains are mainly caused due to the release of prostaglandins during contraction of uterus in menstrual periods. Prostaglandins is a type of hormone that is responsible for causing inflammation and pain in body. Menstrual cramps lead to contraction of uterus restricting the flow of blood into the walls of linings of uterus. The pain experienced during period cramps can be compared to the pain that is felt when blood vessels are not able to supply required amounts of oxygen and food to the heart.

Secondary menstrual cramps or period pains are less common and associated with one or more of the following medical conditions:

  • Endometriosis can cause secondary menstrual cramps or period pains. This is a special medical condition in which the tissues forming the outer walls of uterus or endometrial lining can shift to the outer parts of uterus such as ovaries, fallopian tubes of the outer sides of pelvis.
  • Uterine fibroids may cause secondary menstrual cramps or period pains. This is a benign tumor like growth that starts to develop in the walls of the uterus resulting into uncomfortable pain.
  • Another condition which can cause secondary menstrual cramps or period pains is adenomyosis. This is a specific condition in which the tissues forming the outer wall of uterus starts to grow thicker.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is one of the infections that affects reproductive organs of a woman and can increase pain during cramps. This infection usually results from a bacteria that is transmitted during sexual activity.
  • Cervical stenosis is another cause of secondary menstrual cramps or period pains. If the opening of the cervix is too small, menstrual blood cannot flow properly leading to a buildup of higher pressure inside the uterus causing pain.

Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

Symptoms of primary and secondary menstrual cramps or period pains are common. However, the symptoms of secondary menstrual cramps or period pains usually starts earlier in the menstrual cycle as compared to primary menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps are always associated with painful sensation in the lower abdomen and the adjoining parts such as thighs, hips and lower back. Intensity of pain can vary from woman to woman. Some women may also experience one of more of the following symptoms:

Tests to Diagnose Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

In the initial diagnosis process, a doctor tries to identify any underlying disorder that may be responsible for menstrual cramps or period pains. If any such condition is suspected, following tests are required to confirm the condition.

  • Ultrasound exam is used for diagnosing menstrual cramps or period pains. This method helps in creating an image of ovaries, cervix, fallopian tubes and uterus using sound waves to help doctor in identifying any abnormalities.
  • There are more advance methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scan that can offer better and more detailed images of the female reproductive system to better understand any abnormality. X-rays combined with CT scan are very powerful in analyzing underlying abnormalities as they produces a 3D view of the area under inspection.
  • An alternative for testing menstrual cramps or period pains is by using laparoscopy. In this method, a small optical fiber tube is inserted into the abdomen. This tube consists of small camera lens to help doctor get a direct view of the reproductive parts of a woman on the computer screen. However, it is rarely used in the case of menstrual cramps.

Treatment for Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

There are variety of treatment options available for menstrual cramps or period pains including medications and surgery. Some of the most effecting treatment options are as follows:

  • Pain Killers: There are some common medicines pain killers for treating menstrual cramps or period pains that are available without any prescriptions such as naproxen sodium (Aleve), ibuprofen etc… that can offer relief from menstrual pain. There are other medications including mefenamic acid (Ponstel) and other NSAID's can be obtained with a proper prescription. All these medications needs to be taken right at the start of menstrual periods or when you start to feel the symptoms of menstrual pain and can be continued until symptoms last.
  • Hormonal Birth Control: Birth control hormones are meant to prevent the release of egg or the process of ovulation. Thus, these hormones are useful in getting rid of menstrual cramps or period pain. These hormones can be introduced in the body in various forms of birth control pills, skin patches, injections, etc...
  • Surgery for Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains: Surgery is also helpful in getting rid of secondary menstrual cramps or period pains caused by certain medical conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis etc… In case of women who are not planning for any children in the future can go for removal of uterus by surgical methods.

Home Remedies for Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

There are some effective remedies that can help for Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains:

  • Regular exercise is a good remedy for menstrual cramps or period pains. It has been found that physical activities or exercises are very helpful in reducing the pain intensity of menstrual cramps.
  • Applications of heat treatment to lower abdomen in various forms such as gently pressing a hot water bottle or heating pad, or taking a hot bath can be very effective in getting rid of menstrual pain or period pain.
  • Dietary supplements are also good home remedy for treating menstrual cramps or period pains. There are some particular dietary supplements such as vitamin B-1 (thiamine), omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, vitamin B-6 etc… that can be helpful in reducing menstrual pain.
  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol. Intake of alcohol or tobacco in any form can increase menstrual pain and thus must be avoided.
  • Reduce stress. Mental stress is also found to be one of the factors that can make menstrual pain severe and thus avoiding stress is crucial in treating menstrual cramps or period pains.

Prevention of Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

There are some healthy eating and lifestyle habits that can helps in prevention of menstrual cramps or period pains. Some of them are as follows:

  • Reducing the intake of sweets, salt, fat, alcohol and caffeine in your diet may help in preventing menstrual cramps or period pains.
  • Living stress free life.
  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like yoga.
  • Exercising on a regular basis.

Risk Factors for Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

The severity of pain during menstrual cramps or period pains can depend on lots of factors. There are certain physical and emotional conditions that can increase the risk of severe cramps during menstrual periods. Usually, cramps are more severe in case of women who do not exercise or undergo physical activities in their routine. Some of the common risk factors that can make you more prone to severe menstrual cramps or period pains are as follows:

  • Age. Women in their younger age have high risk of menstrual pain. The pain gradually reduces as the age increases.
  • Early Puberty. In case of girls with early puberty at the age of 11 years, menstrual cramps or period pains are more common.
  • Menorrhagia. This is a particular condition in which the bleeding during menstrual periods is significantly higher than normal.
  • Metrorrhagia. Women who do not undergo normal menstrual bleeding during periods.
  • Women who have not yet given birth to their first child are also at risk for menstrual cramps or period pains.
  • If there is a history of menstrual cramps in the family, the chances of menstrual cramps can increase significantly.
  • Smoking can also make a woman more prone to menstrual cramps.

Complications of Menstrual Cramps or Period Pains

Menstrual cramps or period pains are not usually associated with any severe complications. However, a woman may experience difficulty in performing routine activities.

Some special medical conditions responsible for secondary menstrual cramps or period pains such as endometriosis can lead to issues with fertility of a woman. Pelvic inflammatory disease can increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy.

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Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: August 22, 2017

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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