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Understanding Period Cramps and How to Get Relief

What to do about period pain

  • Mary Walsh
    Reviewed By: Shannon DeVita DNP, FNP-BC, CPNP-PC
    Updated:

It's understandable that many of us don't know why period cramps happen or the best way to handle them. Historically, this isn't surprising, given that the study of the woman's body was often neglected. In fact, a uterus was named a "female scrotum" (the scrotum is a male body part) until the seventeenth-century!

You may have tried to get rid of bothersome period cramps with over-the-counter remedies like Ibuprofen. Many women use a long-term solution like birth control, which may help reduce the pain you feel with menstrual cramps. If birth control might be a good long-term option for you, see if you're eligible to get birth control that may help with period cramps from Pill Club for $0.

If these problems do not go away after treatment or if this pain or discomfort is keeping you from your normal activities (school or work), you should talk to your doctor. If you are experiencing severe or worsening pain please see immediate medical attention.

How to relieve period cramps fast

Period cramps are so common we might assume they're just a part of life. About 9 out of 10 women have them. They can be annoying or downright painful, and usually last for a few days. Your doctor might refer to them as "menstrual cramps" - just know we're talking about the same thing!

Period cramps can feel different for everyone, and you may feel mild to severe pain during your "time of month," also known as your menstrual cycle. Sometimes, the pain can interrupt your daily routine or just make you feel lousy in general.

Period cramps seem to arrive at the most inconvenient time. If you need to get rid of them fast, here are some quick ways that help women conquer cramps (or at least help them feel better):

  • Pain reliever medicine like Ibuprofen (Advil™) or acetaminophen (Tylenol™)*
  • Warm heating pad or compress on the belly
  • Warm bath to help increase blood flow and ease pain
  • Lying down with a pillow under the knees
  • Exercise and stretching
  • Rest and relaxation

*Note: Before you take any new medication, read the directions, and take as directed. We recommend you speak with your nurse or doctor if you're currently on other medicines, have a health condition, or are not sure if this medication is safe for you.

What are menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps are when you have aching pain or a feeling of pressure in your lower abdomen or belly. You could also feel pain in your hips, lower back and inner thighs, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic describes the pain you might feel from menstrual cramps as "throbbing or cramping pains in the lower abdomen."

Just to clarify, whether we say period cramps or menstrual cramps, we're talking about the same thing.

Why do I have menstrual pain?

Growing up, most women probably saw more images of a male's reproductive organs than a female's in science textbooks. Thus, it's not surprising that for many women, menstrual cramps, the menstrual cycle, and other women's health experiences are a bit of a mystery.

Here's some info to clear up the mystery: Most researchers think that menstrual pain is caused by a natural chemical (prostaglandins) in your uterus. This chemical makes your uterus contract, causing mild to severe cramps depending on how much of the chemical you have naturally in your uterus.

Why do I get cramps before or after my period?

You may wonder why you can get cramps that begin even before your period starts, or after your period ends. Here's why.

1. Ovulation pain

The most common cause for cramps before or after your period is ovulation. Specifically, if you feel pain more on one side vs. the other, it could be from one or both ovaries. This is a tell-tale sign. For some women, a "middle cramp" is pretty typical, meaning in the middle of their cycle, they experience cramps. Ovulation pain is different from period cramps, because you get it about 2 weeks before your period.

2. Other medical conditions

If you are experiencing cramps in the middle of your cycle and it's severe, you will want to talk to your doctor about potential causes to determine if it is a different cause of pelvic pain, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, or if it has to do with your menstrual cycle.

How to get rid of or relieve period cramps

The good news is there are options out there to help soothe period cramps. You can try various things, like using pain relievers, home care methods, or even a few natural remedies. Additionally, if you are looking to avoid cramps in the future, hormonal birth control may help lessen the pain.

1. Using pain relievers for period cramps

One safe, quick option to get rid of or soothe period cramps is over the counter pain relief such as ibuprofen (the brand name of ibuprofen is Advil™).

Various clinical studies have shown that ibuprofen can be a super effective and fast way to eliminate cramps. Ibuprofen has also been shown to be more effective for period cramps than pain relievers with the ingredient acetaminophen (such as aspirin, Tylenol™, or Midol™). The National Institutes of Health says Aspirin or Ibuprofen are usually adequate to reduce menstrual pain.

Doctors say it's ideal to start taking pain relievers slightly in advance of the cramps.* If the timing doesn't work out and you can't plan ahead, doctors say that pain relievers work best when taken at the first sign of pain from your periods.

*Note: Before you take any new medication, read the directions, and take as directed. We recommend you speak with your nurse or doctor if you're currently on other medicines, have a health condition, or are not sure if this medication is safe for you.

2. At-home care for painful periods

There are different ways to deal with painful period cramps when you're at home. You could try some of these tips from the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Place a heating pad or hot water bottle on your belly or lower back.
  • Rest can help
  • Lie down on your back with a pillow under your knees or on your side with your knees to your chest.
  • Gently massage your lower back or abdomen.

3. Natural remedies for period cramps

You may like to turn to natural methods before medicine. There's been research on these kinds of "alternative treatments" like taking vitamins for period cramps. Unfortunately, the results don't strongly show them to be effective treatments, in a medical sense. But that doesn't mean they can't be helpful. Remember that supplements like vitamins aren't approved by the FDA.

It's been widely circulated that supplements like vitamin B or herbal supplements might help with period cramps. So, scientific reviewers went to investigate. After reviewing the research, they found that there was very limited evidence that vitamin B1 could treat period cramps, but the reviewers didn't completely rule it out. They also found very limited evidence for other supplements like fish oil or herbs like ginger or fenugreek.

However, this lack of evidence doesn't discount all alternative treatments. The Cleveland Clinic says you might find alternative treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, relaxation, or breathing exercises helpful.

4. Physical activity to ease pain from period cramps

When your cramps hit, it might feel counterintuitive to move your body, but being physically active could help ease period cramp pain. Doctors think that the endorphins that are released when you exercise make you feel good, therefore helping with the pain.

For example, yoga might help. An initial trial published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that yoga helped reduce the pain of cramps as well as psychological stress.

5. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially during period week

It can be helpful during your period week to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You can try to:

  • Stay away from caffeine.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Eat right and get enough sleep.
  • Quit smoking if you are a smoker.

Quitting smoking can be an especially powerful preventive technique for both period cramps and your overall health and wellbeing. Women who have been smoking for years may be at a higher risk than non-smoking women for cramps. Additionally, women who smoke at least one cigarette a day are more likely to experience cramps then if they were not smoking. Experts suggest quitting smoking to improve cramp symptoms. If you or a friend needs help to quit smoking, there are some good resources out there**.***

*Note: The California Smokers' Helpline offers free, personalized, and confidential services to help you quit smoking. You can even call 1-800-NO-BUTTS to check for any starter kits; as of this writing, you could call for free nicotine patches to be sent to your home.

6. Using birth control to reduce period pain

Birth control pills can be more than just a contraceptive method; they have other benefits as well. For example, the Obstetrics & Gynecology Journal details a study in which birth control can be an effective way to reduce lower belly cramps, specifically in a group of young women.

Types of menstrual cramps

Here are some deeply technical, medical terms, but don't get scared off. They'll help us explain why your cramps are mild or severe.

In the medical field, period pain or cramping is referred to as dysmenorrhea.

There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common type of period cramp, and you usually feel it as a pain in the lower abdomen or lower back.

The other type of cramp is more severe and is called secondary dysmenorrhea. This type of pain often starts later in life, and is usually caused by a condition that affects your uterus or other reproductive organs, such as endometriosis, an inflammatory disease, or uterine fibroids.

What makes your cramps mild, moderate or severe?

There are few reasons why the pain of period cramps could be mild or severe.

Moderate or mild period cramps

If you are experiencing mild to moderate pain, this is typical and is simply caused when the uterus contracts as the wall of the uterus shed and cause cramps. It may affect your sleep or some activities, but you can try some of the techniques above to soothe the pain.

Severe period cramps

If you are having severe pain or more than two days of severe cramping with your period, you will want to ask your doctor about it and learn more about options and the best treatment plan. Secondary dysmenorrhea could be caused by endometriosis.

How birth control can help mild to severe period cramps

If you want to improve cramp symptoms, you might consider asking your doctor about birth control. Birth control has been shown to be effective within the first two months to help with cramps, the heaviness of periods, and severe cramps.

Birth control vs Ibuprofen

One study in the American Journal of Medicine shared the differences in birth control and ibuprofen for cramps. The study found that both methods effectively reduce cramps; however, the way they reduce cramps is different.

Ibuprofen helps slows the release of the chemical that can cause cramps, while birth control stops ovulation altogether and lightens periods. Both are effective but depending on if you are interested in lightening your period as well, you may want to consider birth control.

Birth control and severe cramps

As mentioned earlier, endometriosis is a disease in the uterus that causes severe cramps. If you think you have this condition, you should speak with your doctor. The treatment options for severe period cramping vary and are yet to be conclusive. However, some research points to birth control as a potential treatment option. Severe cramps could also be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease or uterine fibroids.

How dealing with period cramps can help in other ways

Of course, being in less pain from cramps, or bloating can majorly impact how your feeling, and might be reason enough to seek relief. But you may also want to consider soothing or stopping cramps for other benefits as well. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine mentions that cramps can cause more absenteeism, meaning you miss out on work or school. Period cramps may also have an impact on your personal life.

For many women, cramps come with the territory of having your period. However, by noticing when you get them and how bad they are, you can start to plan around possible short-term and long-term solutions, whether it be with pain relievers, at-home treatment, or using birth control. Many women get period cramps, but luckily, there are options to try so you can go on living your life comfortably, even during that time of the month.

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