Over 50% of all women who menstruate have been reported to experience menstrual cramps before or during every menstruation. The pain ranges from mild to severe and can begin one or two days before menstruation and may last 2 – 4 days. This can be very annoying and can even affect the normal activities of that woman during her period. Menstrual pains is one of the leading reasons for women absenteeism at work.
Women who experience menstrual pains during their periods always wonder if there is anything they can do to reduce or prevent such pains. One of our readers also had this question to ask and this article will focus on explaining what actually causes menstrual pains and what you can do to reduce your menstrual pains and other preventive measures you can take.
Overview of Menstruation
Menstruation refers to the cyclical shedding of the lining of the uterus when there is no fertilisation of the eggs produced by the women in that cycle. The normal cycle length range from 21 – 35 days and menstruation can continue for a normal length of between 2 – 6 days. There are some conditions that can alter these normal ranges, you should speak to your doctor if your cycle or flow gets longer or shorter than the normal.
Adolescent girls are likely to see their first menstruation (menarche) from 13 – 15 years of age and menopause is expected to set in at 45 – 50 years of age.
What causes Menstrual pains?
In your menstrual cycle, there are three phases – the follicular phase, ovulation phase and luteal phase. Menstrual pains are mostly associated with the last phase.
When your ovaries release eggs and there is no fertilisation from a male sperm, they travel to the uterus from where they are menstruated out. The lining of the uterus (which becomes very soft and fragile) during menstruation is also shed off during menstruation which is what makes your periods bloody.
The uterus produces some chemicals called “prostaglandins” which causes the uterus to contract in order to expel menstruation, similar to what happens during labour. It is this prostaglandins and their effect on the uterus that brings about menstrual pains. The prostaglandins affect blood supply to the uterine wall and the result of that is painful menstruation for you.
The amount of prostaglandins produced by the uterus determines the severity of the menstrual pain. So your menstrual pains may not be of the same intensity every month and menstrual pains are not the same for every woman. The pain is usually felt in the lower abdomen but can also be felt at the lower back and radiate to the legs.
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, irritability, weakness, fainting spells, e.t.c are other symptoms that may accompany extreme cases of menstruation in women. In some women, the physical symptoms of menstruation can be preceeded by a number of emotional symptoms. This is termed as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Other Causes of Menstrual Pains
The clinical term for painful menstruation is called dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea refers to painful menstruation due to the normal process explained above. Secondary dysmenorrhea is when a pathological condition like endometriosis or fibroids becomes the cause of the menstrual pains. Your doctor can be able to diagnose whether your menstrual cramps are physiological (normal) or pathological (due to a disease).
Pelvic inflammatory disease, adenomyosis, cervical stenosis, ovarian cyst, intra uterine contraceptive device, and abnormal pregnancy, are other conditions that can cause menstruation to be painful.
Risk Factors for Menstrual Pains
There are certain factors that can increase your chances of experiencing menstrual pains. They include
- When you are younger than 20 years
- If you had your first menstruation (menarche) at 11 years or younger.
- If you have never given birth
- Heavy menstrual flow (menorrhagia) or irregular menstruation
- If you are overweight or obese
- If you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol
- Presence of other pathological health conditions.
How You Can Reduce Your Menstrual Pains
Menstrual pains reduces with age, but there are things you can do to relieve pains during your period. Surgery may be necessary if there is an underlying medical condition that is causing the pains.
You can use over-the-counter anti inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen or any other pain killer that works for you. They are 80% effective in relieving menstrual cramps. You should however, note that over use of these pain killers can have negative effect on your stomach lining and kidneys, so consult your doctor before you use them or if you are using them already.
You can also opt for hormonal therapy, where hormonal birth control pills, injections, patches, or IUD’s are used to control menstruation and menstrual cramps. This has been shown to be 90% effective in reducing menstrual pains.
Some studies show that acupuncture can also be used for relieving menstrual pain. A transcutanous electrical neural stimulation (TENS) unit can also be used. It is a small device that interferes with pain signals that reaches the brain.
Lifestyle and home remedies you may want to try at home include:
- Exercise- Studies have found that physical activity may ease the pain of menstrual cramps.
- Heat- Soaking in a hot bath or using a heating pad, hot water bottle or heat patch on your lower abdomen may ease menstrual cramps. Applying heat may be just as effective as over-the-counter pain medication for relieving menstrual cramps.
- Dietary supplements- A number of studies have indicated that vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-1 (thiamine), vitamin B-6 and magnesium supplements may effectively reduce menstrual cramps.
- Avoiding alcohol and tobacco- These substances can make menstrual cramps worse.
- Reducing stress- Psychological stress may increase your risk of menstrual cramps and their severity.
Preventing Menstrual Pain
Prevent painful menstrual cramps with these techniques:
- Keep a normal body weight.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol.
- Exercise regularly.