Stomach cramps (dysmenorrhoea) are one of the most common symptoms of menstrual periods and up to 80% of women are thought to be affected each month.
Cramp often starts a couple of days before your period is due and can continue throughout the first few days of menstruation, finally beginning to ease off towards the end Menstrual cramps typically cause lower abdominal pain but in some cases this can radiate through into your back, or down your thighs.
Primary dysmenorrhoea is the most common type of period pain and occurs when the structure and function of the womb is perfectly normal. Secondary dysmenorrhoea describes the pain that occurs as a result of a disorder of the womb – it is often worse at the time of a woman’s period but in many cases can become apparent at any time of a woman’s monthly cycle. Common conditions giving rise to secondary dysmenorrhoea include fibroids, endometriosis, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
The risk of having a painful period is thought to be dependent on a number of factors. Typically pain can become worse as we age; this is for a number of reasons but changing hormones are thought to have a part to play, for example in the lead up to the menopause. Other potential risk factors for period cramps include starting your periods early (age 11 or younger), having particularly heavy or irregular periods, if painful periods run in your family, or if you have some condition affecting the womb. Lifestyle factors are also important as we will go on to discuss below.
Some woman experience pain alone or it can be in combination with other symptoms including nausea, dizziness, headaches or altered bowel habits. Period cramps can also be a part of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Generally, PMS involves a range of more severe symptoms which really inflict on your day to day life.
Here, I describe some of the causes of period cramps and how a range of home, herbal and conventional remedies can potentially offer you some relief.
There are some simple home remedies which can help to take the edge off of the pain associated with menstrual cramps:
- Chamomile tea – Chamomile is a well known nervous system relaxant and research has suggested that it might also be useful for reducing period cramps. Take 2-3 cups of chamomile tea per day to help with the pain
- Heat – Applying heat gently helps to increase blood flow. Press a hot water bottle into your pelvic region to help ease cramps
- Exercise – Gentle exercise can also be useful as it helps to increase blood flow to the affected area which can help to relieve your pain. Exercise also releases feel-good endorphins which can improve your mood, and this can make your pain more bearable
- Sleeping position – Lying a certain way may help with period pain. Lie on your side with your knees pulled up (also known as the foetal position) as this can help to take the pressure off of your abdomen
- Psychological factors – Addressing any issues such as anxiety or low mood can be an important step in managing your menstrual cramps. Psychological issues may affect your sensitivity to pain
Sharifi, F., Simbar, M, Mojab, F., Alavi, M.H (2014) Comparison of the effects of Matricaria chamomile (chamomile) extract and mefenamic acid on the intensity of premenstrual syndrome. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 20(1), 81-8
If period cramps are troublesome your pharmacist or doctor may be able to help.
Pain killers and anti-inflammatory medication such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can be bought over the counter which can be taken to help ease period cramps.
In more extreme cases your doctor might suggest putting you on a hormonal contraceptive, such as the pill. Depending on the type, your periods can become lighter, less painful or even stop altogether. Always carefully discuss your options with your doctor and consider any side effects of medication you plan to take.