What to know about menstrual cramps
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Menstrual cramps are painful sensations that affect many people before and during a menstrual period.
The pain, also known as dysmenorrhea or period pain, ranges from dull and bothersome to severe and extreme. Menstrual cramps tend to begin after ovulation, when the ovaries release an egg that travels down the fallopian tube.
Pain can affect the lower abdomen and lower back. In about 10% of people who menstruate, the discomfort is severe enough to affect their daily life for 1–3 days each month.
Pain that only occurs with menstruation is known as primary dysmenorrhea. Secondary dysmenorrhea is period pain that stems from a medical problem, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease.
Menstrual cramps usually refer to a dull, throbbing, cramping pain in the lower abdomen, just above the pelvic bone.
Other symptoms may include:
- pain in the lower back and thighs
- nausea and vomiting
- faintness and dizziness
- diarrhea or loose stools
People should see a doctor if:
- the symptoms are severe or get progressively worse
- blood clots are bigger than a quarter
- pain is present at other times, not just around menstruation
Manufacturers have created some products specifically for menstrual cramps. These combine NSAIDs and antiprostaglandins, and they can reduce cramping in the uterus, lighten the flow of blood, and relieve discomfort.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe hormonal birth control pills to prevent ovulation and reduce the severity of menstrual cramps. These pills work by thinning the lining of the uterus, where the prostaglandins form, which can reduce cramping and bleeding.
Other types of hormonal birth control, including some intrauterine devices (IUDs), vaginal rings, patches, and injections can all help decrease cramping.
If the cramps are due to an underlying medical condition, such as endometriosis or fibroids, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the unwanted tissue.
People can also try certain lifestyle measures to reduce cramping. These include:
- exercising regularly
- trying to reduce stress — for example, practicing meditation, mindfulness, or yoga
- quitting smoking, if a smoker, or avoiding secondhand smoke
Some natural remedies that may provide relief are:
- applying a heat pad to the lower abdomen
- practicing relaxation and mindfulness techniques
- engaging in physical exercise, such as jogging or yoga
- taking a warm bath or shower
- having a massage
- using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Various herbal teas and other herbal remedies may help manage symptoms, although research has not yet proven that they can help.
A 2019 review concluded that chamomile tea has antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, and antianxiety properties that may make it useful in treating premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including cramps.
Chinese herbal medicines
A review from 2008 concluded that treatment with Chinese herbal medicines might help reduce menstrual cramps. The herbs varied but included Chinese angelica root, Szechuan lovage root, and red and white peony roots.
However, the authors noted that the evidence was low quality and that there was not enough information about adverse effects.
A small 2014 study found that people who took Pycnogenol, the registered trademark brand name for French maritime pine bark extract, for 3 months alongside birth control pills had less pain and fewer days of bleeding compared with those who used only birth control pills.
At least one small study has found that fennel extract may help reduce menstrual pain. Other research found that it did not reduce pain but that the severity of bleeding was less when people took fennel drops for up to two menstrual cycles.
Lavender and other essential oils may help reduce menstrual discomfort. In one study, half of the participants smelled a cloth scented with lavender for the first 3 days of their period over two menstrual cycles. These individuals experienced less severe pain than those who used a placebo.
The authors of a 2018 review concluded that lavender and rose oils might have moderate benefits.
There is not enough evidence to prove that any of these remedies work, but they are unlikely to be harmful if a person uses them under supervision.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate herbs and supplements for quality or purity. Therefore, it is best to check with a doctor before using any herbs or supplements, as they can sometimes have adverse effects.