For those who menstruate, pain during periods is a common experience. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, half of all menstruating women will experience period pain at some point in their lives. Cramps in the lower abdomen, accompanied by nausea, headache, dizziness and sometimes pain even in the thighs or lower back, can last anywhere between a few hours to two days during a period.
Individual experiences with period pain vary because people have different pain thresholds. For many, the cramping is intense enough to keep them from work, disrupt social plans, or keep them at home making them desperate for solutions. For temporary pain and discomfort caused by cramps, there are some steps you can take to reduce the pain and resume your usual activities. But debilitating pain that prevents you from being able to work or even get up from bed, sometimes accompanied by very heavy bleeding, vomiting, fever and intense fatigue, might point to some serious underlying condition. Here’s how you can identify if your period pain is normal, and how you can stop period cramps.
What Causes Period Pain?
1. Primary dysmenorrhea: This is the name for the cramping pain that comes right before or during a period. It is not caused by any underlying diseases. It is caused by elevated production of the hormone called prostaglandin, which is made in the lining of the uterus. Prostaglandins cause the muscles and blood vessels of the uterus to contract, and strong contractions can momentarily cut off the blood supply to the uterus. This deprives the uterine muscles of oxygen, causing pain and cramps. On the first day of a period, the prostaglandins level is high, causing more intense and frequent cramps, and it reduces through the cycle as the uterine lining is shed.
2. Secondary dysmenorrhea: Pain caused during periods because of an infection or a disorder in your reproductive system is termed secondary dysmenorrhea. It begins early in the menstrual cycle, and lasts longer than normal menstrual cramps (longer than 48-72 hours from the beginning of the period), and sometimes might not go away even when the period ends. You can develop secondary dysmenorrhea later in life, and studies show that it is most frequently seen in women between the ages of 30-45. Some of the underlying conditions for it are endometriosis, uterine fibroids and adenomyosis, and these need to be diagnosed by a medical professional so that you can get the appropriate treatment.
How to Deal with Period Pain
1. Use heat therapy.
Although medical research on it is still insufficient, heat therapy is a home remedy that has been used for centuries to deal with period pain. A study conducted by the Society of Gynecologic Investigation, Toronto, in 2001 found that using heat topically can reduce pain by 49 percent within two hours. It works by relaxing the muscles of the uterus, which increases blood flow and reduces cramps. Take a relaxing warm bath or a hot shower when you experience cramps. You can also use a hot water bottle directly placed on your abdomen to reduce pain, but be careful to not place it on bare skin as the heat may cause blisters or mild burns.
2. Try a period pain patch.
Commercially available period pain patches are usually of two kinds: a heat patch, which heats up when exposed to air and acts as a portable source of heat for cramps, and pain relief patches imbued with active ingredients like menthol and eucalyptus oil, that give a cooling sensation for pain relief. Both of these can act as natural remedies for reducing cramps.
3. Try some yoga positions.
While physical activity might be the last thing you want to do while on your period, some yoga positions can be effective in reducing pain. Try the balasana or the child’s pose, where you do a forward fold with your knees curled under you and your head touching the ground. Or the viparita karani (inverted leg pose) where you lie down flat on your back and raise both your legs in a straight angle towards the ceiling. These can improve circulation, relax your abdominal muscles and thus reduce menstrual cramps.
4. Avoid caffeine.
You might be tempted to pick up a cup of strong tea or coffee when you feel exhausted from your period, but consuming too much caffeine can intensify the pain. Consumption of more than 3 cups of coffee a day causes the narrowing of blood vessels, which makes cramps worse. Try herbal teas like chamomile, fennel or ginger teas instead, which have anti-inflammatory properties, and can help reduce the pain.
5. Try over-the-counter pain medication.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are available over the counter, although it is better to consult a doctor before taking them. These medications include ibuprofen and naproxen. Paracetamol and aspirin can also help to a certain degree to reduce cramps, but not as effectively as NSAIDs. Research by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, Germany, shows that taking the painkiller right when your period starts can allow you to prevent the pain from peaking. But people with high blood pressure, bleeding disorders, stomach ulcers, severe asthma, and liver and kidney disease should stay away from such medication.
6. Try a diet rich in magnesium, B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids.
According to research conducted in 2017, increased intake of magnesium a week before your period starts, for 2-5 months, can reduce cramps in some people. B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids have also shown promise for the same, although research is limited. Add magnesium to your diet in the form of soya products like tofu, leafy green vegetables like spinach, and almonds. You can get B-vitamins from supplements or green vegetables, cereals and oatmeal, while omega-3s can be found in oily fishes, walnuts and flaxseed oil.