Over half of women who menstruate experience period pain (dysmenorrhea) for one to two days every month. And even though period pain can mean headaches or general discomfort, the pain is typically caused by menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps happen when your uterus contracts to shed its lining, also known as the uterine lining. This can cause pain in your stomach, lower back, groin or upper thighs. Previously, we talked about when it makes sense to see a doctor for menstrual cramps. Here, we’ll talk about what might be causing your period pain and offer 13 home remedies you can try to improve it.
What causes period pain?
There can be many reasons for period pain, and if you experience chronic painful periods, it’s only natural to wonder why. Maybe you’re the only woman in your family who gets severe cramps. Maybe your painful periods didn’t start until your 20s. Whatever your situation, a doctor can help you understand why you get painful cramps every month. Some of the most common causes of painful periods are:
PMS (premenstrual syndrome)
Also known as premenstrual syndrome, PMS affects 90% of menstruating women. PMS starts a few days before your period begins and continues into the first day or two of menstruation. Doctors think PMS is caused by estrogen and progesterone levels dipping before the beginning of each period. PMS has many symptoms, including fatigue, irritability and menstrual cramps.
PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder)
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a more severe form of PMS that affects about 5% of menstruating women. Doctors aren’t sure what causes PMDD, but women with high levels of stress, depression or a family history of depression are more likely to experience it. Symptoms of PMDD are similar to PMS, but more intense, including more painful cramps.
Uterine fibroids are benign growths that may develop in the lining of the uterus. They can be so small that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye, or big enough to change the shape of your uterus. They usually appear during childbearing years and often shrink or go away completely after menopause.
Doctors can’t be sure who will develop uterine fibroids, but certain factors can increase one’s risk. These include age, African American ancestry, having a family history of fibroids and being overweight.
Since fibroids grow in the uterine lining, they can cause heavy periods and painful menstrual cramps.
A cyst is a usually harmless sac of fluid that forms in or on your body. Ovarian cysts develop in the ovaries, typically during ovulation. Many women develop at least one small cyst every month that naturally fades. However, some women have multiple or large ovarian cysts which can cause pain or complications. In these cases, medical treatment might be needed to manage the cysts.
Ovarian cysts can also be caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is a condition where a hormone imbalance causes many small, harmless cysts to grow in the ovaries. This can cause painful periods, difficulty getting pregnant, insulin resistance and other health concerns. Symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, excess hair on the face and body, weight gain, difficulty losing weight, acne and thinning hair. A doctor can prescribe treatments to help manage PCOS symptoms.
PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)
When the uterus and ovaries become infected, this is called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The infection usually begins when bacteria from a sexually transmitted infection (STI) makes its way to the reproductive organs. PID can also happen following a surgical procedure. While many women experience no symptoms of PID, it can cause painful cramps for some people.
The uterine lining, also known as the endometrium, grows inside the uterus. But if you have endometriosis, your endometrium grows outside the uterus, usually in other parts of your reproductive organs like the ovaries or fallopian tubes. When your body tries to shed uterine tissue during your period, the endometrium growing outside the uterus has nowhere to go. It can become trapped in the body. This can cause painful cramps, heavy bleeding, irritation and inflammation. With advances in medicine, most cases of endometriosis can be well managed with medications and procedures.
Adenomyosis is a treatable condition where the endometrium grows into the muscle wall of the uterus. The endometrium can affect the entire uterus muscle, but it usually affects one spot. Adenomyosis is a manageable condition, but it can cause severe cramps. Doctors aren’t sure exactly what causes adenomyosis, but women who’ve had children or undergone uterine surgery have a higher risk of developing it.
13 things that may help with period cramps
Dealing with menstrual cramps every month can be as frustrating as it is painful. The good news is there are many remedies that might help you relieve period cramps. It’s important to remember that these techniques won’t always work, especially for chronic conditions, but they can offer relief for mild to moderate period pain.
1. Drink more water to reduce bloating
Bloating can cause discomfort and make menstrual cramps worse. While it may sound counterintuitive, drinking water can reduce bloating during your period and alleviate some of the pain it causes. Also, drinking hot water can increase blood flow throughout your body and relax your muscles. This can lessen cramps caused by uterine contractions.
2. Enjoy herbal teas to relieve inflammation and muscle spasms
Certain types of herbal tea have anti-inflammatory properties and antispasmodic compounds that can reduce the muscle spasms in the uterus that cause cramping. Drinking chamomile, fennel or ginger tea is an easy, natural way to relieve menstrual cramps. Plus, these herbal teas can have other benefits, like stress relief and helping with insomnia.
3. Eat anti-inflammatory foods to relax menstrual cramps
Some foods can offer natural relief for cramps, and they taste great. Anti-inflammatory foods can help promote blood flow and relax your uterus. Try eating berries, tomatoes, pineapples and spices like turmeric, ginger or garlic. Leafy green vegetables, almonds, walnuts and fatty fish, like salmon, can also help reduce inflammation.
4. Skip the treats to avoid extra bloating
While a brownie or french fries might sound delicious, foods high in sugar, trans fat and salt can cause bloating and inflammation, which makes muscle pain and cramps worse. Grab a banana or another piece of fruit to fight sugar cravings, or go for unsalted nuts if you want something more savory.
5. Reach for decaf coffee to improve period pain
Caffeine causes your blood vessels to narrow. This can constrict your uterus, making cramps more painful. If you need your coffee fix, switch to decaf during your period. If you rely on caffeine to beat the afternoon slump, eat a snack high in protein or take a quick 10-minute walk to boost your energy.
6. Try dietary supplements to help with menstrual symptoms
Vitamin D can help your body absorb calcium and reduce inflammation. Other supplements, including omega-3, vitamin E and magnesium, can help reduce inflammation and might even make your periods less painful. For best results, take supplements every day, not just during your period. Also, because some supplements interact with medications, be sure to ask your doctor before taking anything new.
7. Apply heat to calm cramping
A little heat can help your muscles relax, improve blood flow and relieve tension. Try sitting with a heating pad, taking a hot shower or relaxing in a hot bath.
8. Exercise for muscle relaxation and endorphins
If you’re in pain, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. But even gentle exercise releases endorphins that make you feel happy, reduce pain and relax your muscles. Fifteen minutes of yoga, light stretching or walking might be all you need to feel the physical and mental benefits of exercise. And if exercise is already a part of your routine, did you know that tracking your period can help you improve athletic performance?
9. Reduce stress to improve mental and physical period symptoms
Stress may make cramps worse. Use stress relief techniques like meditation, deep breathing, yoga or your own favorite way to relieve stress. If you’re not sure how to relieve stress, try guided imagery. Simply close your eyes, take a deep breath and imagine a calm, safe place that’s significant to you. Stay focused on this space for at least a few minutes while you take slow, deep breaths.
10. Try massage therapy to reduce cramping and stress
One study found that massage therapy significantly reduced menstrual pain in women with endometriosis. Massages may reduce uterine spasms by relaxing the uterus. In order to manage period cramps most effectively, massage therapy should focus on the abdominal area. But a full body massage that reduces your overall stress may also help to relieve menstrual cramps.
11. Take over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to get rid of period cramps
The hormone prostaglandin can cause muscle contractions and pain. Anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen can provide fast-acting relief by reducing the amount of prostaglandins in your body. For best results, only take OTC medicines when you start to feel cramps. OTC medicines may not always magically cure menstrual cramps, but they can often improve pain significantly. For best results, only take OTC medicines when you start to feel cramps.
12. Try alternative medicine for PMS relief
Some people find relief with alternative medicine practices like acupuncture and acupressure. Acupuncture is a practice that stimulates the body by placing needles in the skin. Acupressure stimulates the body without needles by putting pressure on certain points of the body. These practices can help you relax, release muscle tension and improve blood flow throughout your body.
13. Start hormonal birth control
Birth control can stop period pain if cramps are caused by a hormone imbalance. Balancing your levels of estrogen and progesterone helps thin the uterine lining so it sheds more easily. Hormonal birth control also regulates the length and frequency of your period. Some forms of birth control can completely alleviate period cramps by stopping your period altogether. Talk to your OB-GYN about birth control options, including the pill, birth control shot or hormonal IUD. Then, you’ll be able to choose the type of birth control that works best for you.
Get help relieving period cramps
If you’ve tried all the menstrual cramp treatments on this list and still have painful periods, or you want to know up front which options will work best for you, talk to your primary care doctor or OB-GYN.
At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, our women's health doctors can prescribe stronger treatments for menstrual cramps that can go a long way to improve your quality of life during that time of the month. A little help from a doctor might be the best way to stop dreading your periods.