An estimated 50% of all women experience menstrual cramps of differing degrees. Among these, up to 15% would describe their menstrual cramps as severe. Surveys of adolescent girls show that over 90% report suffering from menstrual cramps.
What are menstrual cramps? What are its symptoms?
Menstrual cramps, otherwise known as dysmenorrhea, are pains in the abdominal and pelvic areas experienced by women during their period as her uterus contracts to expel the unfertilised eggs from her body in the form of menstruation blood.
Every month, the uterine lining breaks down to make way for new uterine lining, releasing molecular compounds called prostaglandins. These muscles cause the uterus muscles to contract. This contraction restricts blood supply to the endometrium (uterine lining), causing them to die off and break down even more. The tissues of the endometrium are then squeezed out through the vagina in the form of menstruation blood.
Another chemical substance, known as leukotrienes, which are chemicals that play a role in the inflammatory response, are also elevated at this time and may be related to the development of menstrual cramps.
These menstrual cramps can range from mild to severe in terms of pain.
There are mainly 2 types of dysmenorrhea:
The ‘normal’ type of menstrual cramps. There is no abnormal medical condition causing this pain. However, these cramps are typically not experienced until six months to one year after the onset of menstruation, as the first few cycles of menstruation usually do not undergo ovulation. Most of the time, menstrual cramps are experienced only when eggs start getting released from ovaries.
The ‘abnormal’ type of menstrual cramps. There is an underlying abnormal medical condition (usually involving the reproductive system) contributing to the severe menstrual cramps.
Symptoms of menstrual cramps include:
- Throbbing or cramping pain in your lower abdomen
- Pain that starts 1 to 3 days before your period, peaks 24 hours after the onset of your period and subsides in 2 to 3 days
- Pain that radiates to your lower back and thighs
- Constant, dull ache
Some, but not all, women also experience:
- Loose stools
Why are menstrual cramps so painful? What are the factors affecting them?
Menstrual cramps due to uterine contractions are mostly responses to prostaglandins and other chemicals in the body. The pain can be intensified when bigger pieces of clots or pieces of bloody tissue try to squeeze through the cervix, especially so when a woman’s cervical canal is narrow.
In cases of severe cramps it’s likely there is a higher level of prostaglandins to blame.
Here are some factors that could be influencing your cramps (or making them worse):
- You’re experiencing a heavy blood flow
- You just started having your period
- As mentioned above, a narrow cervical canal often induces menstrual cramps
- Psychological factors like stress may play a part in intensifying the pains
- Overproduction of protasglandins in your body
- Lack of exercise (exercise releases endorphins that are natural pain relievers)
- Anatomical factors like a retroverted uterus (a condition when the uterus tilts backwards instead of forward)
- Adenomyosis or endometriosis
- Uterine fibroids
Here are some warning signs that your menstrual cramps are not normal, and some possible worrying reasons for your severe menstrual cramps (for those who suffer from it).
Are there any ways to prevent or relieve menstrual cramps?
#1: Exercise (or orgasms)
Our body’s very own natural ‘feel-good’ pain-relievers – endorphins, are released when you work out, or have sex (and orgasm). Endorphins will not only help to relieve the menstrual cramps, but boost your mood as well!
Here are some yoga poses to relieve menstrual cramps or some exercise tips to help prevent the menstrual cramps before they come!
#2: Improved Diet
It has been scientifically proven that reduction in fat and increase in vegetables in one’s diet may help alleviate the monthly menstrual cramps.
A low-fat, high in vegetables diet will not only improve your overall health, but also generally decrease the level of inflammation in the body, hence helping to relieve the monthly menstrual cramps.
For a start, try switching from ‘unhealthy’ fats (eg.saturated fats) to ‘healthier’ fats (eg.unsaturated fats) in your diet, or opt for low-fat options!
Here are some other types of food you can incorporate into your diet to help alleviate the cramps! However, do take note to avoid these foods to prevent more unwanted menstrual cramps!
#3: Massage Therapy (with essential oils)
Naturally, when you’re experiencing bodily pains, some massage therapy will help! It has been found that applying some pressure on certain acupuncture points helps relieves the pains, and coupled with the relaxing properties of essential oils, these makes coping with the menstrual cramps easier!
Here is a quick video demonstrating to you how to do this!
#4: Heat Therapy
Topically applied heat therapy has been researched and studied extensively countless times by many researchers, and they have more or less concluded that it is just as effective as taking painkillers as menstrual cramp relief! (Based on a 2012 study focused on women 18 to 30 years old) This is also a great option for women allergic to painkillers or trying to reduce their reliance on them.
However, the right temperature of heat pads is crucial in this treatment, and many heat pads are often either not warm enough to have any effect, or too hot such that it burns the skin, before cooling down extremely fast – rendering it useless. Hence, opt for heat pads that are able to deliver a constant, low yet optimal level of heat to the body, yet are able to last for a longer period of time, such as the MenstruHeat.
#5: Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate contains high levels of magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in neuromuscular transmission and muscular contraction – it has been hypothesised that magnesium deficiency predisposes to muscle cramps. There are also many other substances found in dark chocolate such as flavanols that have powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory purposes, potassium to help reduce bloatedness and many more!
However, do note that ONLY dark chocolates will provide relief, other ordinary chocolates high in sugar may actually do more harm than good instead!
While you should be avoiding caffeine during your period because it’ll worsen the pain, some teas actually help to relieve your menstrual cramps!
The lesser known method to relieving menstrual cramps, these caffeine-free tea options are actually great in helping you relax and relieve the cramps!
#7: Supplements (magnesium, fish oil / vitamin B1)
Another natural option for menstrual cramp relief would be taking supplements such as Fish Oil, Vitamin B1, and Magnesium. According to a study, teens have found that taking such supplements reduced their menstrual cramps.
Otherwise, you could also opt for some natural herbal remedies that help with menstrual cramps as well!
If all else fails and the menstrual cramps get too bad, you can opt for painkillers. In fact, birth control pills may also help to relieve the pains due to the hormones they contain.
However, try not to rely on the painkillers too much as long-term usage of it is detrimental to your health!
Myth #1: If you swim in the sea during your period, you are highly likely to get eaten by sharks.
Fact: Contrary to popular belief (or popular film ‘JAWS’), there has actually never been a documented case of a swimmer being attacked by sharks because she was on her period. So feel free to swim as you wish, even while on your period!
Myth #2: You will not get pregnant if you have sex during your period.
Fact: Despite what many people believe, you CAN still get pregnant while on your period. Once inside, sperms can survive for up to 3-5 days, and ovulation occurs pretty soon after the bleeding phase of your menstrual cycle. Therefore, there is definitely still a chance of you getting pregnant!
To be safe, always use contraceptives if you do not wish to get pregnant.
Myth #3: You should get as much rest as possible and avoid exercise during your period.
Fact: Quite the opposite actually. Although the last thing you’d want to do while on your period is to move, exercise has actually been proven to provide menstrual cramp relief, as it releases endorphins – our body’s natural pain-relievers (as explained above)
Of course, on days where you just feel too weak to get out of bed or move, give yourself a break and rest up!
Myth #4: Using a tampon will cause your hymen to tear, hence causing you to lose your ‘virginity’.
Fact: Your hymen is a ring-shaped piece of tissue with a hole in the middle (yes, not a membrane right at the end of your vagina) just inside your vaginal opening. A tampon is usually not big enough to tear it.
Hence, if inserted gently and correctly, usage of tampons shouldn’t be breaking your hymen. However, some people might have naturally smaller hymens that may break upon the slightest trigger (eg. Riding a bicycle).
Thus, this varies from person to person, although wearing a tampon should definitely not be causing any pain or discomfort!
Most importantly… the pains of having a menstrual cramp are REAL! Some lesser informed people might dismiss menstrual cramps as simply a dramatisation of women trying to gain special treatment or a sense of entitlement, but they do not realise that menstrual cramps are in fact a very real problem that could lead to severe health complications!
Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve learnt something new from this article!