An introduction to period pain and PMS
Almost every menstruating woman will experience period pain, known medically as dysmenorrhoea, at some point in her life.
For some, this may be a rare event with mild symptoms and a passing inconvenience. Other women however may not be as lucky, being regularly plagued with severe, cramping pain each month, as well as other symptoms of PMS.
Period pains are usually felt the day a period is due and settle within a day or so after menstrual bleeding starts. They are usually described as cramping pains in the lower part of the tummy (lower abdomen). When the pain is at its worst, it may spread to the lower back and upper part of the thighs. As pain subsides, it may be felt as a slight heaviness in the tummy.
Why does PMS cause period pains?
In the days leading up to menstruation, tissues lining the inside of the uterus (womb) start to disintegrate in preparation for the monthly bleed. Muscles in the uterus contract and as they do so, blood supply to the womb is interrupted.
This results in a reduction of oxygen to uterine tissues and the release of chemicals that trigger inflammation and pain.
Period pain is usually felt in the lower part of the abdomen because this is where the uterus sits. However, pain can spread to surrounding parts of the body such as the lower back and upper thighs and there are two reasons for this:
- The inflammatory ‘pain’ chemicals produced by the uterus can migrate to surrounding tissues
- Pain signals from the uterus travel up to the brain in the same nerve channels as those coming from surrounding parts of the body. This confuses the brain making it difficult to know where the pain is coming from and is known as ‘referred pain’.
Remember that period pain can sometimes be an indication of a more serious problem such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts. If your period pains last more than one week or affect you for most of the month, you should seek the advice of your doctor.
What can I do about it?
When your lower abdomen is aching, you just want to curl up into a ball and wait for the pain to subside. However, this is not often an option as we have to get on with life. Nor is it the best way to get rid of the pain.
In fact, as the pain is caused by muscular cramps, one of the best things you can do is go outdoors, get some good oxygen into your lungs and stretch your muscles. You do not need to go for intense exercise - a brisk walk might just help alleviate your pain.
Warmth is a good way of helping with pain of any kind, so cuddling a hot water bottle or using a heat pad can be very comforting. Remember not to put the heat directly onto bare skin though, as you may burn yourself. A warm bath or shower may help to relax your muscles in the same way as a hot water bottle.
Studies suggest that magnesium helps to reduce muscular cramps. It acts as a muscle relaxant and also lowers the level of prostaglandins, a group of compounds which cause inflammation and pain. Did you know that magnesium can be found in chocolate? Read my blog post on how chocolate can help period pain for more information.
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Are there herbal remedies to help me?
Most herbalists will consider Agnus castus to be the treatment of choice when dealing with period pains. This herb is also known as Chasteberry – it is the berries of the plant which are used medicinally.
Agnus castus has been used for many years to treat menstrual disorders in women. There is good evidence for its use in reducing period pains as well as to help other PMS symptoms such as bloating, irritability, low mood and anxiety.
If you are taking oral contraceptives, hormonal medication or HRT, speak to your doctor before using Agnus castus as it may not be suitable for you.
What about conventional medicines?
A doctor is likely to suggest the use of painkillers to treat period pain. This class of medicines may be bought without a prescription and this is how many women cope with period pains. However, some women may require stronger painkillers available only on prescription.
Nevertheless, painkillers do not tackle the root of the problem and if period pains are severe, your doctor will consider the use of hormonal treatments, starting with the oral contraceptive pill. This has the effect of preventing ovulation and thus, artificially controlling the monthly cycle.
If you are concerned about your health and think your period pains may be caused by conditions other than PMS, seek medical advice.
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