Nearly 50 percent of all women are afflicted with some degree of menstrual cramping and for 15 percent, the abdominal pain is severe enough to cause hindrance in day-to-day life.
Whether you experience cramping before your period or cramping after your period, we’re going to help you get sorted. Below you’ll learn everything from what causes period cramps at any time of your cycle and how to ease them naturally.
But, what are menstrual cramps?
During your menstrual period, your uterus contracts to help expel its lining. Hormone-like substances (prostaglandins) involved in pain and inflammation trigger the uterine muscle contractions. Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more-severe menstrual cramps. Severe contractions could constrict the blood vessels feeding the uterus. The resulting pain can be compared to the chest pain that occurs when blocked blood vessels starve portions of the heart of food and oxygen.
Not a scientist? It basically means that your muscles are just aching from pushing out the blood.
What causes menstrual cramps?
Endometriosis:The tissue that lines your uterus becomes implanted outside your uterus, most commonly on your fallopian tubes, ovaries or the tissue lining your pelvis
Uterine fibroids: These noncancerous growths in the wall of the uterus may be the cause of pain
Adenomyosis: The tissue that lines your uterus begins to grow into the muscular walls of the uterus
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): This infection of the female reproductive organs is usually caused by sexually transmitted bacteria
Cervical stenosis: In some women, the opening of the cervix may be so small that it impedes menstrual flow, causing a painful increase of pressure within the uterus
While WebMD might tell you the five causes of your symptoms are all reason to run to the doctor, there are often much less severe and more common reasons for your symptoms.
You probably think that menstrual cramps just include the pain in your lower stomach; however, it actually includes a lot more.
Menstrual cramp symptoms.
Symptoms of menstrual cramps can vary, extending from your lower stomach to other areas of the body:
- Throbbing or cramping pain in your lower abdomen that may be intense
- Dull, constant ache
- Pain that radiates to your lower back and thighs
Some women also experience nausea, loose stools, headaches and dizziness.
All of us experience cramps differently due to the numerous factors that affect them—emotional stress, being younger in age, beginning puberty early, frequently smoking, irregular or heavy bleeding during your period, never giving birth and experiencing heavy bleeding can all increase the intensity of our periods.
So, it isn’t surprising that we experience different types of cramps. Some of us have pain in our abdomen, while some feel pain in their hips or lower back. A few women even get an upset stomach. Basically, we all feel a little bit of pain in different parts of our bodies in various intensities either before or after our period.
I usually get cramps about five days before I begin my period. It’s my not so friendly reminder that my time of the month is on its way. However, when I recently told my friend that I get cramps before my period, she said that she had them after?
Almost 90 percent of women report they regularly have such painful episodes right before menstruating, but women can experience cramps after. Why? What’s the difference? Let’s dive in.
Cramps before your period.
Cramps before your period is the uterus tightening and relaxing at the same time, which causes us the mild to sharp pains. While this happens, a chemical called “prostaglandins” is released–this increases the intensity of the contractions. Thus, severe cramps are a sign that your prostaglandin levels are too high.
Most women can feel cramps before their period begins. This could happen up to two weeks before your period to just the day before. A few of us even have cramping while we have our period.
You may be surprised to find out that there are actually two stages to the cramps that you feel before your period begins.
Primary: These are the most common, where pain is felt in your lower stomach. You typically feel them one or two days before your period.
Secondary: You will feel these cramps in your lower back. These cramps typically occur three to five days before your period.
If your period doesn’t arrive, but you’re still feeling cramps this could be caused by implantation. This is when the egg and sperm fertilize. The fertilized egg makes its way into the uterus where it attaches to the uterine lining. During this process, you might bleed or have sudden cramping that will last just a few minutes.
Cramps after your period.
Cramps after your period can continue up to two weeks even after the bleeding has stopped. They definitely aren’t fun, but they also aren’t a reason for concern.
Uterine Incapacity: A woman’s uterus is meant to expel all of the blood from a period by the time a woman’s period ends, but that doesn’t always happen. When there’s some blood left in there that needs to be expelled, we feel more cramps and in result, some spotting.
Hormonal Imbalance: When our hormones are off balance, our bodies change at a rapid pace. One of the signs of a hormonal imbalance is cramping.
Many women become concerned that they are pregnant if they have cramps at the end of a period or cramping a week after. However, this is a very, very rare occurrence. Immediately after a period, a woman does not ovulate under normal conditions so her body will not physically be able to get pregnant yet.
If you’ve started menstruating within the past few years and have menstrual cramps, chances are your menstrual pain isn’t a cause for concern. However, if menstrual cramps disrupt your life every month, if your symptoms progressively worsen, or if you’re older than 25 and just started having severe menstrual cramps, see your doctor. They could be due to a medical problem such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids or pelvic inflammatory disease.
Pregnancy cramps vs. Period cramps.
Pregnancy cramps usually happen when the pregnancy first takes place. These cramps are caused by the body adapting and changing to prepare for birth as well as to accommodate the baby growing inside of you. Women may get alarmed and fear that the baby is in danger, but you shouldn’t be worried. Mild cramping during this time is very normal. It’s also a little different from menstrual cramps. They’re usually:
- More mild
- Lower than normal
- Cramping on both sides
However, most women say that the cramping is similar to their normal menstrual cramps. It is only very few women that feel sharp twinges of pain in their lower abdomen that can last months after pregnancy occurs. This is absolutely normal though—the uterus and muscles inside of your body are just stretching to accommodate the baby.
The only time that cramps during pregnancy can be cause for concern are when:
- Cramping is very severe and painful
- Cramping is consistent and doesn’t go away
- Blood is present
You should not have any cramping and bleeding seen together when you’re pregnant. Any vaginal bleeding at this time should result in an immediate visit to your doctor.
Natural remedies for relieving period cramps.
Easing menstrual cramp symptoms is one way that women can come together whether they experience cramps before or after their period. There are many natural remedies that are available to help women alleviate menstrual cramp pain and discomfort:
A trip to the yoga studio or even just a brisk walk and talk session on the gym treadmills can make a big difference in your menstrual cramp symptoms. The increase in blood circulation will help make them go away, but that’s not the ringer. Menstrual cramps are usually made worse by stress and since exercise is a natural way to lower stress, you may not feel your symptoms much at all. Don’t skip the gym and stick to your normal routine.
Food & proper hydration.
- Staying hydrated actually prevents your body from retaining water and avoids painful bloating. Warm water helps cramps by increasing blood flow to the skin and relaxes cramped muscles. Bring your tea thermos to work with you and sprinkle some ginger in as a digestive aid. You should also bring water-based foods such as celery, cucumbers, watermelon and berries—you can even throw them all into a salad.
- It might be helpful to drink more milk during this time since calcium reduces depressive and anxious feelings in the brain while vitamin D regulates the enzyme that converts tryptophan into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate moods. Another great source of these vitamins is yogurt, which also contains live cultures to promote healthy digestion. Try switching your breakfast to a natural yogurt and granola parfait for the week of your period.
- Bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes rich in potassium can help boost moods, aid sleep and regulate bowel movements. Throw a banana in your gym bag for a snack or add a few slices of avocado to your lunch or dinner.
- Salmon and tuna are both fish that are rich in Omega 3’s and other fatty acids that are great for relaxing the muscles in your body, which may decrease the severity of your cramps.
Avoid tight clothing.
Avoid tight clothes, especially at the waist. They only hurt the stomach and further compressing it causes discomfort. Opt for your favorite dresses instead of jeans. When you’re not at work – feel free to bust out the yoga pants.
Sex & orgasms.
Orgasms relieve all kinds of pain, including our menstrual cramps. Before an orgasm, the uterus is more relaxed and at the moment of climax, blood flow increases, which helps to relieve the cramps. Orgasms additionally relieve cramps by the release of endorphins, which instantly help you feel better. They also help to relax your whole body and induce sleep so you won’t feel any cramping at all.
According to a survey on MensHealth.com, it’s women, not men, who close up shop during their period. More than three-quarters of the guys polled said they’d love to have period sex, although 54 percent would do it only with a serious girlfriend or wife.
If you want to give it a try, here are a few tips:
- Spread a dark towel on the bed
- Use a latex condom so that you can easily “roll off” the blood
- Keep a warm, wet washcloth or towel nearby
- Try different positions. Lying on your back or side will be less messy than going at it on top.
Our advice? Go all out and deal with the sheets in the morning.
Try a hot bath or a heating pad. Get in bed, relax and put something hot right over your lower abdomen for quick, soothing relief. You can buy heating pads and hot water bottles at your local drugstore, but you can make your own too. Simply get an old sock, fill it with uncooked white rice, tie it up and microwave for one or two minutes.
Acupuncture & massage.
Certain acupuncture points are thought to regulate blood flow through the abdominal cavity and relax the nervous system, which can help ease menstrual cramps. Studies show that acupuncture is just as effective as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines for reducing pain.
If acupuncture isn’t your thing, massage therapy is another great way to control—and in some cases, completely stop—cramps. Lie down in a comfortable place and relax your mind before smearing your hands with your favorite lotion. Then, begin to slowly move your palms over your bellybutton in small circular movements. After a minute or so, begin to apply some pressure. You will find sensitive spots around the belly button. Apply adequate pressure to these spots in order to relieve your cramps.
Listen to your body, nourish it with the proper nutrients and exercise your soul. We are unique human beings and our period cramps will not be the same as our mother’s or best friend’s, but we can treat our bodies with the same care that they all need.
What do you change in your routine before, during or after your period to help ease your cramps? Let us know in the comments.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Janet Brito.
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**We love reading your comments, but unfortunately, are unable to post or respond to comments or questions that outline specific medical issues and seek medical advice. For any medical concerns, we always advise consulting a medical professional. If you’d like to learn more about your period, we’d recommend checking out other Blood and Milk articles.**
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