Menstrual cramps are painful sensations that affect many women before and during a menstrual period.
The pain, also known as period pains, ranges from dull and annoying to severe and extreme. Menstrual cramps tend to begin after ovulation when an egg is released from the ovaries and travels down the fallopian tube.
Pain occurs in the lower abdomen and lower back. It usually begins 1-2 days before menstruation and lasts from 2-4 days.
Pain that is only associated with the process of menstruation is knows as dysmenorrhea.
If the cramping pain is due to an identifiable medical problem such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease, it is called secondary dysmenorrhea.
Measures that may reduce the risk of menstrual cramps include:
- eating fruits and vegetables and limiting intake of fat, alcohol, caffeine, salt, and sweets
- exercising regularly
- reducing stress
- quitting smoking
- Yoga or acupuncture and acupressure help, but more research is needed
If the first treatment option does not work within 2 to 3 months, the patient should return to the doctor.
A more invasive type of therapy may be available, or further investigations may be needed.
Menstrual cramps usually refer to a dull, throbbing, cramping pain in the lower abdomen, just above the pelvic bone.
Other symptoms may include:
- pain in the lower back and thighs
- nausea and vomiting
- faintness and dizziness
- diarrhea or loose stools
If symptoms get progressively worse, or if they start over the age of 25 years, it is a good idea to see a doctor.
Approximately once every 28 days, if there is no sperm to fertilize the egg, the uterus contracts to expel its lining.
Hormone-like substances called prostaglandins trigger this process.
Prostaglandins are chemicals that form in the lining of the uterus during menstruation. They cause muscle contractions and cramps that are similar to labor pains. They can also contribute to nausea and diarrhea.
The contractions inhibit the blood flow to the lining of the uterus, or endometrium. It may also happen because there are high levels of leukotrienes during menstruation.
Some non-medical options that may provide relief are:
- soaking in a hot bath
- applying heat, for example, a hot water bottle, to the lower abdomen.
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Do not sleep with a heated pad as it could cause burns. before purchasing a TENS unit, compare brands and product reviews.
Researchers found that ingredients in chamomile tea may help relieve menstrual pains by relaxing the uterus. Compare different brands online.
In another study, Chinese herbal medicines were found to help reduce menstrual cramps, but the authors called for more research.
Some dietary options, including herbs and vitamin supplements, may help. Some examples are lavender, fennel, and pycnogenol. These have very little risk.
One study suggests that ginger powder may help if taken during the first 3 to 4 days of the menstrual cycle.
Getting enough rest and sleep and regular exercise may help.