What are Menstrual Cramps?
Menstrual cramps are also known by its medical term as dysmenorrhea. These cramps are characterized by either dull, throbbing pains in the lower abdomen or shooting, intense pains that may last for a few minutes. Every woman’s experience with menstrual cramps is different. Menstrual cramps can range from mild, moderate to severe pain.
Some women only experience mild menstrual cramps with a slight twinge of pain while for others, the pain can be incapacitating and disrupt their lives. Often when the pain is so severe, it is quite common to find young girls or women not being able to go to school or work.
There are two types of menstrual cramps – primary dysmenorrhea or secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea typically begins six months to a year following the beginning of menstruation and there is no underlying gynecological problem contributing to the pain. Cramps and the degree of pain tend to lessen as you become older and often disappear completely after giving birth.
Secondary dysmenorrhea involves an underlying abnormal condition such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids that causes the menstrual cramps. This condition usually develops later, after you have begun menstruating.
The common symptoms and signs of dysmenorrhea include:
- Dull, throbbing pain in the lower abdomen
- Pain that extends to lower back and thighs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
What Causes Menstrual Cramps?
During the menstrual cycle, the uterus contracts when the blood leaves your uterus and sheds its lining. The lining of the uterus produces a hormone or special substances called prostaglandins which trigger the cramping and pain. Some women produce higher levels of prostaglandins and experience more severe cramps.
Several conditions can cause secondary dysmenorrhea and these include:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Uterine fibroids and uterine polyps
- Use of an intrauterine (IUD) device
Diagnosing Menstrual Cramps
If you are experiencing severe menstrual cramps that are disrupting your life, consult your health practitioner. The diagnosis of secondary dysmenorrhea involves a thorough physical examination including a pelvic exam as well as a review of your medical history.
A pelvic exam will also be performed to check for any abnormalities and signs of infection. Additional tests such as imaging tests (ultrasound, CT or MRI scan), a laparoscopy or hysteroscopy may be performed to determine the underlying cause of secondary dysmenorrheal.
Help for Menstrual Cramps
Various treatment options are available to relieve the pain and discomfort of dysmenorrhea. Self-care strategies such as applying a heating pad on your abdomen or lower back, exercising regularly, keeping warm and getting plenty of rest can make a significant difference to the way you feel. Over-the-counter medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve discomfort.
If cramping is severe, low dosage oral contraceptives may be prescribed to prevent ovulation which thereby reduces the production of prostaglandins. If you suffer from secondary dysmenorrhea, treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Treatment may include antibiotics for the infection, polyps to treat endometriosis or surgery to remove fibroids. Alternative treatment options such as massage, acupuncture, yoga or meditation can also provide pain relief.
Natural and holistic treatments are a gentler and safer alternative to alleviate the pain and discomfort of menstrual cramps. Using herbal remedies helps to support the female reproductive system and promotes overall health and wellbeing.
Herbs such as Foeniculum vulgare (Sweet Fennel) acts as a liver tonic and helps to promote water balance while Pulsatilla vulgaris (Pasque Flower) is a soothing and supportive herb for the female reproductive system. In addition, Dong Quai (Angelica Sinesis) helps to promote hormonal harmony throughout the menstrual cycle and Melissa officinale (Lemon Balm) soothes and promotes stable mood and feelings.
More Information on Menstrual Cramps
Tips to cope with menstrual cramps
There are several ways to cope with and alleviate the pain and discomfort of menstrual cramps. Follow these helpful guidelines:
- Exercise regularly by walking, cycling, stretching or doing pilates
- Soak in a warm bath to relieve pain
- Use a heating pad on your lower back or abdomen
- Try drinking ginger tea to reduce nausea and chamomile tea to soothe cramps
- Make yourself as comfortable as possible – wear track pants, socks and curl up with your blanket
- Massage the affected area with arnica or aromatherapy oil
- Increase your intake of vitamin supplements such as zinc and calcium
- Reduce your intake of salt to help reduce bloating
- Get plenty of rest