Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Evidence Based Article 📄
This article has been based on relevant and up-to-date scientific studies. Our writers are unbiased and objective and present the facts as they are known. Numbers in brackets within the article refer to sources included in the reference list at the end of the article.

Although it’s very common for women to experience mild pain during their periods, some women have severe cramps that are hard to tame.

If you can’t relieve the pain with a help of the over-the-counter pain medicine and you’re unable to do anything the first three days of your menstruation, you may suffer from the condition called dysmenorrhea.

Despite being a complicated term, dysmenorrhea has a simple meaning – it’s a difficult monthly flow that features severe cramps and other health issues related to it.

It’s crucially important to learn as more information about dysmenorrhea as possible to treat the condition correctly. Today, we’re on our journey to learning why menstrual cramps happen and how you can treat them in a natural way.

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What are the types of dysmenorrhea?

Women suffer from primary dysmenorrhea or secondary dysmenorrhea, which are both considered menstrual disorders. While the first type is the most common one and doesn’t possess serious health risks, the second type can require serious medical treatment, including surgery.

  • Primary dysmenorrhea. It’s a painful menstruation that has no underlying pelvic pathology. Despite the severe pains, primary dysmenorrhea is considered a safe process of menstruation. The cramps in the lower abdomen can begin a day or two before menstruation and can last 2 to 4 days. Primary dysmenorrhea affects up to 50% of women, especially girls during adolescence and women in their 20s.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhea. It’s an alarming sig you need to see a gynecologist as soon as possible. Secondary dysmenorrhea is often related to any gynecologic disorder you might have. Endometriosis is one of the medical problems that reveals itself in the form of cramps particularly during menstruation. It happens when the tissue similar to the uterus lining is outside its normal location. Apart from having cramps, you may also have heavy periods and suffer from infertility. Even though secondary dysmenorrhea is more common among women in the middle adulthood, every woman can have this condition.

What are the major causes of both types of dysmenorrhea?

Primary dysmenorrhea. When your uterus relaxes and tightens, letting the blood leave the uterus, cramps may occur. The uterus lining releases special chemicals, prostaglandins, which increase the strength of the uterine contractions, particularly during the first two days of menstruation.

The excessive levels of prostaglandins are often the major cause of primary dysmenorrhea. Other causes include retroverted uterus (a uterus that’s tilted posteriorly), stress, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, alcohol, and poor eating habits.

Secondary dysmenorrhea. This condition is more serious and thus is caused by highly serious factors, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection of the fallopian tubes), endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, an ovarian cyst or tumor, sexually transmitted infections, and the use of birth control methods like an intrauterine device (IUD), among the others.

Secondary dysmenorrhea gets worse with each cycle and the cramps occur long before the onset of the menstrual flow and continue up to 5 days after it ends.

What are the major symptoms of dysmenorrhea?

Dysmenorrhea cramps may be congestive (dull and deep pain) and spasmodic (a sharp pelvic pain at the beginning of menstrual flow). They’re are obviously easy to spot, but here are the most common symptoms of dysmenorrhea that you might experience:

  • Severe cramping or throbbing pains in the lower abdomen;
  • Nagging pain throughout the entire body;
  • Lower back pain that radiates to the thighs;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Headaches similar to migraine attacks;
  • Giddiness;
  • Bloating and diarrhea;
  • Constipation;
  • Low energy;
  • Sleep disturbance.
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Is it possible to diagnose dysmenorrhea?

There are no specific tests to diagnose primary dysmenorrhea – women do it themselves with a help of a menstruation journal. If you think you might be suffering from secondary dysmenorrhea, you may need to do a blood test (either a differential count (DC) or a total count (TC), or both) to figure out if any infectious process is happening in your pelvic organ.

Then, you may need to do bacteriological tests to find out if you have a pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or sexually transmitted diseases (STD). In some cases, doctors use urinalysis, transvaginal or abdominal ultrasound, and a diagnostic laparoscopy.

Dysmenorrhea treatment

The majority of women never seek medical treatment for dysmenorrhea. They take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other analgesics to relieve the pain. When the cramps are severe, it’s vital to see a doctor.

Unless you suffer from secondary dysmenorrhea, it’s possible to reduce and prevent the menstrual cramps at home.

How to prevent dysmenorrhea

If you’re prone to the menstrual cramps, you can ward them off long before your period. First of all, reconsider your eating habits. Focus on the wholesome foods and reduce your alcohol consumption.

Make sure you get enough nutrients and don’t have any deficiencies. Secondly, keep your stress levels at bay, as stress makes the cramps more severe. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and see your gynecologist regularly.

11 Natural ways to relieve the menstrual cramps

Women suffered from the menstrual cramps long before the pain-killers appeared, so how did they relieve the pain? Of course, in all-natural ways. Thankfully, today we have much better and more comfortable life, so you can quickly fight those pesky menstrual cramps by using the following methods:

1.Have a cup of herbal tea

Herbal teas have been used for centuries and a number of studies have revealed that certain herbal teas are helpful in relieving the menstrual cramps.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, a moderate amount of cramp bark tea can help to reduce the menstrual cramps and overall discomfort. Bring a cup of water to boil and add 1-2 teaspoons of cramp bark to it. Simmer for 12-15 minutes and drink 3 times a day. The cramp bark tea isn’t recommended for women who take lithium or diuretics for blood pressure.

Peppermint and chamomile teas are also good for relieving the symptoms of dysmenorrhea. Start drinking these teas at least twice a day a week before your period to lower the likelihood of the pain. If you take blood-thinning drugs or have a history of a hormone-related cancer though, avoid herbal teas at all costs.

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2.Use a heating pad

The study posted on the Evidence-Based Nursing website showed that a usage of a heating pad during the menstrual cramps was as effective as ibuprofen.

Moreover, the study that involved 84 women with the symptoms of dysmenorrhea showed that using a heating pad and ibuprofen at the same time provided an instant pain relief. Grab that heating pad or a warm bottle and curl up while enjoying your favorite book or movie. Distraction is a powerful tool, as well.

3.Shy away from inflammatory foods

Your diet can play a key role in how intense your menstrual cramps are. The fats are the leading precursors to the chemicals that make the uterus contract. The animal fats are the most harmful ones since they cause inflammation within the body. The animal fats lack many nutrients and antioxidants that help to combat and prevent inflammation that leads to most diseases.

Opt for plant-based fats, instead. Avocado, nuts, and seeds are great sources of healthy fats that along with vitamin D aid in the reduction of prostaglandins that cause menstrual cramps. Berries, olive oil, and tomatoes are awesome anti-inflammatory foods worth eating during the period. Women who are vegan or vegetarians have a lower chance of suffering from dysmenorrhea unlike those who eat meat and meat products.

4.Boost your intake of B vitamins and magnesium

Magnesium helps to lower the stress levels, which often lead to severe menstrual cramps. B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, aid in preventing bloating that makes a mild pain worse. Some of the best food sources of magnesium are chard, spinach, yogurt, almonds, black beans, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate. The starchy vegetables, fortified cereals, and nuts are high in vitamin B6.

If you’re not sure you’re getting enough B vitamins and magnesium, talk to your doctor about supplementation. There are separate magnesium and B vitamins supplements, but oftentimes doctors recommend taking a supplement with both vitamin B6 and magnesium.

5.Move your body

When you experience the menstrual cramps, nausea, and other health issues related to your periods, exercise is definitely the last thing you want to do. However, light exercise can ease the pain, raise your energy levels, and improve your mood.

Aerobic exercise and yoga are menstrual-friendly workouts that help to boost the endorphins (happiness hormones) and the blood flow, counteracting the prostaglandins and reducing cramping.

The next time the cramps strike, dedicate 5 minutes to performing the poses such as Child’s Pose, Forward Fold, Knees-to-Chest Pose, Supine Twist, Cat/Cow Poses, and Savasana. If you don’t feel like practicing yoga or doing any other exercise, just go for a short walk.

6.Take advantage of anti-spasmodic herbs

Cramping is all about muscle spasms, so certain anti-spasmodic herbs can quickly relieve them. Rub a drop of natural clary sage essential oil on the lower abdomen whenever the cramp strike and let it do its job. Clary sage essential oil works similar to acetaminophen and ibuprofen, but it can be a lot safer when used in moderation. Not only does it act as an antispasmodic, but also aids in controlling estrogen.

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Cypress essential oil helps to increase circulation and reduce the menstrual cramps. You can either use it separately or along with clary sage essential oil. Lavender and ylang ylang essential oils can be effective as well. Peppermint essential oil can work with a warm compress to ease the cramps. When it comes to essential oils, it’s crucial to remember not to use them internally.

7.Stay hydrated

Water prevents your body from retaining water, reducing the chances of bloating, nausea, vomiting, and cramps. Warm water with a piece of fruit will boost your immune system, relax your cramped muscles, increase the blood flow to your skin, and elevate your energy.

Avoid drinking too much coffee, alcohol, and black tea, which can lead to dehydration and worsen the symptoms of dysmenorrhea. If you find it difficult to sip plain or fruit infused water throughout the day, consider noshing fruit and veggies with high water content, such as cucumbers, watermelon, berries, celery, etc.

8.Take a nap

Sleep is the best cure, isn’t it? Whenever your body aches or your soul cries, you fall asleep to relieve the pain. Taking a short nap is one of the surefire ways to ease the menstrual cramps. Listen to some relaxing music to help yourself fall asleep faster and receive quality sleep.

9.Think of acupuncture

Acupuncture isn’t for everyone, but it’s still an option. Numerous studies and reviews have been conducted to show the positive and powerful effect of acupuncture treatment on the menstrual cramps.

The treatment calms down the nervous system, increasing your blood flow, reduces the pain, and provides an anti-inflammatory effect. If you have any health issues, let an acupuncturist know about it. Also, be sure to find a licensed acupuncturist to avoid any side-effects.

10.Take a warm bath

Please don’t confuse the word “warm” with “hot.” While hot baths and showers worsen the symptoms of dysmenorrhea, a warm bath can relieve them.

Taking baths at least 2 times a day won’t only relieve the menstrual pain, but will also help you fight bacteria and period odor. When soaking in a warm bath, don’t stay in it longer than 5 minutes. Otherwise, it can lead to the heavy period with even worse cramps.

11.Distract yourself

This last method has nothing to do with natural remedies, but many women use this trick to ease the cramps. Generally, the most terrible pain starts in your head. When you keep telling yourself that you’re having horrible cramps, you’re more likely to experience them. Try watching a movie or read a book and you’ll see how milder your cramps will become.

If you don’t get any relief after taking pain-killers and trying various self-treatments, call your doctor. If you suffer from the pain longer than 3 days or if you have the cramps long after your period, it’s a reason to see your doctor as well. Before trying any of the natural methods mentioned above, it’s recommended to discuss them with a doctor.