Having heavy or painful periods can be one of the most frustrating parts of your menstrual cycle. Nine out of ten women of reproductive age go through some type of painful period each month. However, in serious cases of about one out of ten women, pain occuring before a period could actually damage a woman’s reproductive ability if not properly diagnosed and treated since. Some of these cases could be caused by conditions like endometriosis.
What are cramps before a period?
Cramps or pain that occur before your period are known as dysmenorrhoea. It is a common part of the menstrual cycle that is usually felt as muscle cramps in the lower part of your abdomen.
Why do you get cramps?
These period pains are caused by contractions of the muscular wall of the uterus, also known as the womb. There are continuous contractions in the womb but they are usually so mild that most women don’t feel them. However, these contractions can happen more vigorously during your menstruation which allows the womb lining to shed away as part of your monthly period. These contractions can become so intense that it causes the womb to press against the blood vessels nearby, temporarily cutting off the oxygen flow and blood supply to the womb. This lack of oxygen in the womb is what causes cramping or pains as the womb tissues release chemicals which will trigger pain. While this is happening, the body also produces prostaglandins, the hormones that encourage the womb muscles to contract, causing increasing levels of pain.
There are two types of period pains:
Primary dysmenorrhea is not caused by any specific condition. For most women, it starts usually within 6 to 12 months after your first period and the pain can last between 8 hours to 3 days. Primary dysmenorrhoea is caused by high levels of prostaglandins which are hormones that make the uterus contract during childbirth or menstruation. These period-like cramps come alive as the lining of the uterus sheds off during your period.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is a painful condition usually caused by a disorder in a woman’s reproductive organs. Such disorders can be adenomyosis, endometriosis, uterine fibroids or infection. Pain from this type of dysmenorrhoea begins earlier in the menstrual cycle and can last longer than normal menstrual cramps. It is usually occurring among women in their 30s or 40s. Secondary dysmenorrhoea can result in having period pain without an actual period and could last for years. It has the potential to damage the reproductive system if not properly treated.
Symptoms common with painful periods
Apart from lower abdominal pains, there are other symptoms you may experience while going through painful periods. You may also experience lower back pain when the pain spreads to lower parts of your back and thighs. Other symptoms associated with painful periods are:
Please note that these symptoms can also be caused by other problems that are not period related. If you have any of these symptoms regularly outside of your menstruation cycle, please see your doctor.
When going through secondary dysmenorrhoea, the pain be different than cramping and be more like a feeling of heaviness in your lower abdomen coupled with back pain. Other symptoms associated with this are:
Painful during intercourse followed by bleeding
Bleeding in-between periods
Heavy or irregular periods
Unusual discharge from your vagina
Please note that these symptoms can also be caused by other problems that are not painful periods. If you have any of these symptoms without menstruation, please see your doctor
How to stop period cramps
Your treatment of painful periods is dependent on the causative factors as well as how severe the pain symptoms are. Most women manage these pains at home without seeing a doctor. However, it is important to note that you need to see your doctor immediately if you think your case may be secondary dysmenorrhoea. This will allow you to determine the conditions causing it and discuss the correct treatment options. Below are some of the things you can do to relieve period cramps.
One of the easiest ways to reduce period pain is by stopping the production of prostaglandins which causes these pains in the first place. NSAIDs, Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, are a class of drugs known as pain relievers or painkillers which are over the counter medications. Examples include naproxen, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin. For the drugs to work better, start taking any of them 1-2 days before the onset of cramping. Note that people with stomach ulcers are not advised to take NSAIDs. Always read warning labels on medications or confirm the medications with your doctor before intake.
TENS unit: (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation)
This is a device that uses electricity to stimulate your nerves essentially causing confusion to the pain fibers in the area it is applied to. In several clinical trials, TENS units have shown to reduce period pain with minimal side effects. TENS units are available for purchase without prescription. However, it is still advisable to check with your doctor before acquiring one. They are available online and are not too expensive. They can also be purchased through the doctor’s office and could be covered by insurance.
We have also come across Livia technology for pain relief. Livia tansmit a very unique pulse that keeps the nerves "busy". Busy nerves means that the nerve-gate is closed, therefore the pain signals can't pass through and are unfelt.
Period pain remedies
Hormone Therapy: Medically speaking, this is the best remedy for menstrual cramps. This involves ingesting birth control pills or oral contraceptives to keep your hormone levels at a steady state. This results in less growth of tissue in the uterine lining without hormonal shifts. Due to this, the prostaglandin production is never triggered. Depo-Provera, a birth control injection, can also work in a similar manner. Oral contraceptives are known to reduce menstrual pain and cramping by 90%.
Massage and Exercise is another way you can help yourself to reduce menstrual cramps. A lower back massage and aerobic exercises have been confirmed to reduce pains or cramping associated with menstruation. You can get these massages from a professional or do it yourself using an at-home tool.
Heat is another highly effective method of getting period cramp relief. Some doctors recommend sitting in a hot tub or warm bath for a short period of time. You can also try placing a hot-water bottle, patch or heating pad on your back or lower abdomen. Make sure you follow instructions outlined on the heat patch and avoid putting it directly to your skin to avoid burns.
Tips and advice for women on period pain relief
There are period pain remedies you should be aware of other than taking period pain tablets to relieve yourself of very painful period. I you are smoker, you should know already that there is some evidence that smoking increases period pain. Therefore stopping it may reduce the cramps and other period pain.
Aside taking paracetamol or ibuprofen for period pain, you can exercise or do some stretching. This will relax and strengthen your muscles to provide relief. You can also rub your lower abdomen to help relax the muscles. Intake of vitamin B1 or magnesium supplements is another way to reduce period pain and other symptoms.
While menstrual cramps can be disturbing and worrisome, you shouldn’t be worried unless:
You experience pain during intercourse.
You experience a sudden onset of cramping and are above the age of 20.
You experience pain at times other than during your menstrual period.
If you still feel a lot of pain after trying out the treatments mentioned above, then it is time for you speak with your doctor about it. Book an appointment and explain everything to the doctor. If you have recorded your menstrual cycle charts or food diaries, take your records with you. Be sure to tell them about any medications you’ve taken including over the counter drugs and supplements.
In trying to diagnose the real cause of the constant period pain, the doctor might;
Take a vaginal examination to feel for anything different in your womb or cervix.
Take a swab sample from it to check for infection.
Run blood tests for anemia and other conditions
Do a trans-vaginal ultrasound. This is a scan that looks at your womb from the outside through your lower abdomen. It also uses a device that is inserted into your vagina to look at your womb from the inside.
If your doctor thinks there might be other causes for your symptoms; they might refer you to a gynecologist.
Period cramps can be extremely painful however, they are treatable. If you’re experiencing heavy painful periods and are unable to treat it yourself after doing the things listed here, follow up immediately with your doctor.