Roughly 50% of the human race are no strangers to several days of cramping a month. For many — but not all — women, cramping is a sign of unpleasant things to come: an upcoming period. It tends to begin in the few days preceding the period and extend into the first few days of bleeding, slowly easing up over time.
Sometimes, the pain is manageable. At other times, however, it seems unbearable. Which begs the question: is there a point at which menstrual cramping becomes abnormal? And if so, what are the telltale signs?
Causes of Menstrual Cramps
Part of distinguishing normal period cramps from abnormal ones lies in understanding the origin of the cramping itself. During a period, a woman’s body expels the uterus’ lining (i.e., the endometrium) by engaging in a series of contractions. These contractions are prompted by prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals associated with increased pain and inflammation.
Aside from the pain caused by the contractions themselves, some especially strong contractions can flatten surrounding blood vessels, cutting off oxygen and resulting in additional discomfort.
Uterine contractions and oxygen deficits have a whole array of associated symptoms, ranging from non-existent to severe depending on the person and even differing from one period to the next. Direct symptoms may include:
- Aching or sharp pain in the lower abdomen;
- Feeling pressure on the belly;
- Hip pain;
- Lower back pain;
- Upper thigh pain.
Indirect symptoms may include:
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Loose stools.
Normal vs. Abnormal Menstrual Cramps
All of these symptoms are typical effects of menstrual cramping. Occasionally, however, accompanying signs indicate that something more than regular uterine contractions is at work. Possible red flags include:
- Timing: Menstrual cramps don’t generally occur other than within the few days before and then during your period. Cramping outside of this general timeframe may indicate an underlying health concern.
- Unusually heavy bleeding: Period flows vary from woman to woman; some have very light periods, while others are conditioned to relatively heavy bleeding. However, abnormally heavy bleeding can signify something atypical and worrisome.
- No relief from medications: If over-the-counter pain relievers such as Ibuprofen or Aspirin fail to take the edge off the pain, doctors may conduct an evaluation to see if there is something else behind it.
Anybody experiencing one or more of those three conditions should consult their doctor as soon as possible. Only a trained medical professional can accurately identify any underlying issues and recommend the best course of treatment.
Several conditions are often to blame for abnormal cramping:
- Endometriosis: A condition where tissue that should only occur within the uterine walls also grows on the exterior, generally on fallopian tubes, ovaries or the inside lining of the pelvis.
- Uterine fibroids: Non-malignant growths in the uterine wall that induce pain.
- Adenomyosis: Similar to endometriosis, adenomyosis occurs when uterine tissue grows outside of its normal range. With adenomyosis, however, the tissue grows into the uterine wall.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): An uterine infection, generally contracted as a sexually transmitted disease.
- Cervical stenosis: If the cervix’s opening is unusually small, the path of the menstrual flow becomes hampered, resulting in a backlog of blood and the endometrium. This excess buildup causes increased pressure inside the uterus.
Unfortunately, pain, pressure and discomfort are commonplace with periods, even when not experiencing any of the above conditions. So what varieties of treatment options are available for pain management?
Before taking medicine or attempting to revamp your diet, many women prefer to try smaller-scale natural remedies. Below are just some of the most common options:
- Heat: According to a review of some studies conducted in 2018, applying heat to the right areas can be just as effective as some types of medication. Women use various application methods, ranging from electric heat pads to hot water bottles or rice-filled packs.
- Stay hydrated: Ensuring that you’re well-hydrated helps deter water retention, preventing bloating that can exacerbate already-painful cramps.
- Exercise: Though jumping on the treadmill may not be the first solution that comes to mind when bedridden with cramps, exercise releases endorphins, a type of hormone that helps relieve pain. Even low-intensity exercise, such as walking, can help decrease pain from menstrual cramps.
- Yoga: Much like other forms of exercise, yoga also releases endorphins. One study even found it more effective than most aerobic activities!
Along the same lines as natural remedies are dietary changes. They may include cutting things out of meals and attempting to include others. In general, foods to avoid are any that commonly cause bloating or water retention.
Foods to avoid:
- Fatty foods;
- Carbonated beverages;
- Salty foods.
Foods to include:
- Herbs: Many herbs, such as chamomile tea, fennel seeds, cinnamon, ginger, dill and French maritime pine bark extract, help calm muscle contractions and decrease swelling.
- Beans and lentils: Beans and lentils have been shown to relieve menstrual cramps.
- Bananas: Like beans, bananas are high in fiber. They also contain magnesium, another substance believed to help ease period cramps.
- Dark, leafy greens: Much like foods containing fiber, those that contain calcium, such as leafy greens, have been shown to help ease period pain.
- Salmon: Salmon contains vitamin D, a nutrient that helps the body to absorb more calcium. They also contain a fatty acid called Omega-3sm, which fights inflammation and reduces the severity of period cramps.
Most over-the-counter medications that help relieve pain and pressure from period cramping are NSAIDs — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — such as Ibuprofen, Aspirin and Motrin.
Menstrual Cramps Are Normal but Treatable
The answer to the are menstrual cramps normal? question is an affirmative one, most of the time. Except for a few rare but intense cases (such as endometriosis) that only a medical expert can diagnose, cramping is a routine part of a woman’s period, naturally resulting from uterine contractions.
However, surrendering to the constant pain of such cramps does not have to be the norm. Thanks to a variety of options, period pain can be significantly mitigated. Bookmark this article so that the next time your period rolls around, you have an arsenal of capabilities to combat those cramps!