Some time between the ages of 10 and 15, you started getting them. And though you’ve lived with them for years, you can never quite get used to the pain, discomfort and downright annoyance that come with menstrual cramps.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that one in 10 women suffer so much during menstruation that their ability to complete usual daily activities is compromised for one to three days every month. You know you’ll have periods for many years, and you might wonder if your cramps are abnormal. Here’s what you need to know about what’s normal — and what might be a red flag.
Types of Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual pain is also called dysmenorrhea. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), you can thank prostaglandins in the lining of your uterus for what’s called primary dysmenorrhea.
These chemicals build up and peak on the first day of your period. Then they actually cause womb muscles to tighten up to help shed that womb lining. You may have noticed that as your period progresses, your cramps become less severe.
Period pain that occurs from factors other than muscle contractions is called secondary dysmennorhea. It can become more of a problem as you get older, with pain getting worse instead of better. As you age, pain can start sooner before a period and continue when the period is over. Causes of secondary dysmenorrhea may include:
- Fibroids or Polyps: These are benign, or non-cancerous, growths in the womb.
- Endometriosis: Endometrial tissue that lines the womb usually stays there, but it sometimes grows in other places in the abdomen. It also breaks down, causing pain.
- Adenomyosis: This endometrial tissue grows inside uterine walls, causing the uterus to enlarge.
Treating Your Cramps
Although you wish your cramps would just go away, they won’t do that without a little help. When you’ve tried hot water bottles and heating pads, dietary supplements such as calcium, activities including yoga and Tai Chi, as well as aerobic exercise, it’s time to talk to your doctor about additional ways to relieve your discomfort. You may be advised to use:
- Painkillers: Ibuprofen or naproxen have been proven effective, as have non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs).
- Birth Control: Products with estrogen and progestin may treat dysmenorrhea, as well as progestin-only products, the ACOG notes. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) are sometimes another effective option, although some women find that IUDs actually produce cramps. Have a thorough discussion with your doctor about the risks and benefits of birth control methods for period pain.
- Invasive procedures: In more severe cases, uterine artery embolization (UAE) can treat fibroids by reducing the blood flow that feeds fibroids. Standard surgeries can remove fibroids as well as endometriosis tissue. A hysterectomy can be performed if no other treatment seems to help.
As always, you know your body better than anyone. Consult your doctor if your period cramps are really cramping your lifestyle.