Menstrual cramps – causes and treatments

Young woman with cup of tea in her hands

Anyone who’s had a period has probably experienced menstrual cramps. For some of you that are luckier than the rest of us, they might be mild cramps with little discomfort, while others might experience severe period pain that gets in the way of… well, everything. The bad news is that menstrual cramps can happen to anyone with a period and can come monthly, both before and during your period. The good news is that menstrual cramps can become less painful as you age (yay for getting older!), and period cramps may stop entirely if you have a baby. We’ve got some tips on how to ease period pain. So, sit back, grab a hot water bottle, and keep reading.

What are menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps, medically named dysmenorrhea, are cramps that come with a menstrual cycle, caused by muscle contractions and swelling of the uterus. Menstrual cramps can be mild or severe with the most common symptoms being pain or pressure felt in the lower abdomen, lower back, or even thighs. Some people experiencing severe cramps have symptoms of nausea, loose stool, headaches and dizziness. If symptoms are severe, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor to understand dysmenorrhea treatment options and to ensure it’s not something more severe.

What causes menstrual cramps?

Period cramps occur as a normal part of the body’s monthly cycle. Each month, the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) builds up in preparation for getting pregnant. If a pregnancy occurs, the fertilised egg attaches itself to the lining to be nourished as it develops into a baby. If the egg isn’t fertilised, the lining isn’t needed. So, it breaks down and hormones called prostaglandins are released. Prostaglandins trigger muscle contractions, which is when the muscles contract and squeeze strongly, which can cut off oxygen to your uterus, causing painful menstrual cramps. The muscles are the same ones that push a baby out during childbirth, so they are extremely strong. Some women may have higher levels of prostaglandins, which unfortunately means they get worse menstrual cramps.

And, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering if tampons make menstrual cramps worse, Dr Melisa Holmes, OB-GYN, has your answer. “No, they don’t... tampons have nothing to do with prostaglandin synthesis or the way they’re used in the body”. Thank goodness for that!

Cramp duration - when to expect menstrual cramps

Primary dysmenorrhea (aka menstrual cramps) typically occur for the first time 1-2 years after a woman experiences her first menstrual cycle and menstrual bleeding and can disappear altogether after having a baby. The symptoms of menstrual cramps can occur each month, usually starting one to two days before menstrual bleeding begins. The pain of period cramps can last for up to 72 hours.

How to reduce period cramps and other treatment options

Don’t let this cramp your style though – there are several home remedies which may help alleviate the symptoms of menstrual cramps and get you feeling like yourself again. So, if you are looking to relieve period cramps fast or make the reduce period pain, use these tips to ease your painful periods:

  • Lie down with a heating pad on your stomach, lower back, or lower abdomen to take the edge off the pain
  • You can also place a hot water bottle on your lower back or lower abdomen to alleviate your period pain
  • Take a warm bath to reduce the pain of menstrual cramps and increase blood flow
  • Ask your doctor about which over-the-counter painkiller or anti-inflammatory is best for you
  • Give yourself a little massage where it hurts
  • Exercise. You probably have zero interest in moving while in pain but exercising before and during your period will lower your level of prostaglandins (the stuff that intensifies menstrual cramps)
  • Have sex! You heard us – having sex on your period may help with period cramps. Learn more about period sex here.

If you have severe menstrual cramps, hormone treatments and contraceptive pills are also options to help manage your cycle. Certain types of hormone treatments can stop ovulation, significantly reducing the pain of menstrual cramps. Contraceptive pills are often used to reduce the effect of prostaglandins. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormonal contraception and hormone treatments to ease the pain of menstrual cramps.

Want more ways to alleviate menstrual cramps and feel better during your period? Check out these period hacks.