Menstrual Cramps

Menstruation often causes uncomfortable side effects such as menstrual cramps, bloating, headaches, and fatigue that can make a woman feel miserable. It is common for her to have mild cramps during her periods because of uterine contractions. However, are the cramps severe and causing hindrances to her daily activities?

Does she not find any relief with painkillers and over the counter medications? If yes, then don’t ignore it. There may be other reasons for the pain. However, how does one know if it is a cause for concern? Read on to learn more about painful periods and what should be done if one has them.

Dysmenorrhea- Painful cramps during menstruation

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for the severe and frequent menstrual cramps, and pain associated with menstruation.

As the uterus contracts more strongly during menstruation, it presses against the nearby blood vessels and cuts off the supply of oxygen to the uterine muscle tissue. Brief loss of oxygen to the muscle results in pain.

It is classified into primary and secondary dysmenorrhea based on the time of onset and underlying cause.

A woman is probably suffering from primary dysmenorrhea, if she has been experiencing menstrual cramps from the time she first got her periods.

This usually persists for life, and is seen to be as result of severe and abnormal uterine contractions caused by chemical imbalances in the body (especially prostaglandin and arachidonic acid that control the contractions of the uterus).

Dysmenorrhea that is seen to develop in later life is termed as secondary dysmenorrhea and is seen to be usually caused by the presence of an underlying disease condition.

Few of the medical conditions that can cause secondary dysmenorrhea are:

  • Endometriosis (a condition in the inner tissue of the uterus becomes implanted outside the uterus usually on other reproductive organs inside the pelvis or in the abdominal cavity often resulting in internal bleeding, infection, and pelvic pain).
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of the pelvic organs)
  • Uterine fibroids (tumour like growths in the uterine muscle wall or in the uterine cavity)
  • Abnormal pregnancy (i.e., miscarriage, ectopic),
  • Tumors of the uterus or ovaries
  • Ovarian cysts (fluid filled sacs in the ovary)
  • Polyps (abnormal growths in the uterine cavity)

Menstrual cramps are seen to affect over 50% of women with about 15% of them experiencing severe cramps. It is more common in adolescent girls affecting upto 90% of them.

A woman is at increased risk of suffering from painful menstrual cramps if she has started menstruating before the age of 11, her age is below 20 years, she has heavy bleeding during her periods, is overweight, or has never delivered a baby.

While any particular underlying reason is not clear period pain is seen to be prolonged in females who smoke, drink alcohol, or suffer from depression.

A woman suffering from dysmenorrhea may experience the following symptoms:

  • Cramping and pain in the lower abdomen radiating down the legs
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Fainting
  • Headaches
  • Painful period cramps
  • Constant ache

The pain may begin 1 to 3 days before or during the menstrual period with a peak at 24 hours and will later subside after 2 to 3 days.

  • It is necessary to seek an appointment with the doctor if the cramps and discomfort are not relieved by over the counter medicines such as ibuprofen or naproxen, or lifestyle modifications (cutting down on sugar and caffeine, use of heating pad over the abdomen, hot water bath, etc.)
  • Maintaining a record of the monthly periods and symptom tracker (time of occurrence and severity of symptoms) for 2 to 3 months can help the doctor figure out the best treatment option.
  • A minor surgical procedure called as laparoscopy (involves making a small cut in your abdomen to look inside your pelvis) may be done to diagnose the presence of abnormal masses/ growths, fibroids, endometriosis, cysts in the ovary, etc.
  • A woman also needs to see the doctor if she has started experiencing painful periods later in life, if there is pain at times other than the first two days of the period, or pain during sex.
  • If the pain is accompanied by unusual vaginal bleeding or discharges, it is safer to consult the doctor to rule out any serious problem involving the uterus or ovaries.

Evaluation at the doctor’s clinic will cover a detailed history, complete physical examination including pelvic examination.

A diagnosis of dysmenorrhea shall be arrived at after ruling out other menstrual disorders such as fibroids, endometriosis, uterine polyps, medical conditions, or medications causing or aggravating the condition.

Diagnostic procedures such as;

  • Blood tests
  • Urine analysis
  • Ultrasound imaging of the pelvis
  • MRI
  • Laparoscopy
  • Hysteroscopy (video assisted procedure to visualize the uterine and cervical cavity for presence of internal fibroids or polyps)

All these tests are performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Few measures that can help in managing dysmenorrhea are regular exercise, increased protein intake, cutting down on sugar and caffeine, taking a hot water bath or shower, using a heating pad across the abdomen, or getting an abdominal massage done.

Eating healthy foods, drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of rest is necessary during the menstrual cycle.

Over the counter medications called as anti-prostaglandins (slow down prostaglandin production) may help in relieving the pain and discomfort, making the flow lighter, and causing the uterus to cramp less.

Medicines containing ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen sodium that are anti-inflammatory agents and also reduce pain can help. These medicines need to be taken with food when you first start feeling the symptoms for maximum benefit.

Oral contraceptive pills are another treatment option as they prevent ovulation and reduce the severity of menstrual cramps.

Other treatment options include vitamin supplements of vitamin B1 or vitamin E, magnesium supplements, fish oils, or acupuncture.

All these are the procedures opted to manage the pain and to obtain menstrual pain relief.

Surgical intervention is done if the menstrual cramps is followed by menstrual pain which are being caused by endometriosis or fibroids in which the abnormal tissue needs to be removed to reduce symptoms.