Are you (or your daughter) getting painful periods and falling into “why me?” mode? You’re not alone, and there’s plenty you can do.
More than half of all women have some pain during menstruation, but cramps usually get less painful as a woman gets older and may stop entirely after she has her first baby. In about 10 percent of all women of reproductive age, the pain is severe.
Ordinary menstrual cramps begin just before or at the beginning of bleeding and last up to three days.
What’s happening: The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ where a baby grows. Every month it grows a lining of tissue in case you become pregnant, and if you don’t, sheds that lining. The thick blood you see during your period is the tissue, also called the “endometrium.” The uterus is made of muscle that tightens and relaxes like any muscle. If it contracts too much, it presses against nearby blood vessels, cutting off oxygen supply, which causes pain. You may feel pain and pressure in the abdomen and pain in the hips, lower back, and inner thighs.
The lining contains chemicals, called “prostaglandins,” that also release into your body. The more prostaglandins, the stronger your contractions. High levels of prostaglandins can cause diarrhea, dizziness, irritability, and nausea — sometimes to the point where you vomit.
Being stressed out can make your uterus contract more during menstruation. There’s also evidence that women who have painful periods are simply more sensitive to pain — in tests, they feel more pain in other parts of the body even when they’re not menstruating. Getting aerobic exercise regularly can raise your “pain threshold” — the point when a sensation feels like pain.
The science suggests that a schedule with physical activity — not necessarily running — can help. One small study concluded that running on a treadmill for 20 minutes 3 times a week reduced menstrual cramps in young women — but spending the same time on 10 stretching exercises for the abdomen, pelvis, and groin worked just as well. Another study found benefits from 40 minute sessions 3 times a week that included 10 minutes of stretching, 20 minutes of walking or cycling, and 10 minutes of relaxation exercises. Muscle-building can help cramps, too.
Try yoga, dance, or biking, if you hate standard workouts. Find activities that you enjoy, mix it up, and switch programs if you get bored, and you’ll be healthier all around than if you spent that time hunched over the laptop.
In the days before and during your period, staying away from caffeine, salt, alcohol, and cigarettes is a good idea.
Pain relievers work best when you take them before the pain gets intense — not when you’re miserable. You can use any of the pills available without a prescription, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen, but stay away from aspirin, which thins your blood and will affect your flow. Start at the first sign of blood or the first cramp. Try a warm bath or a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower back or abdomen. Many women find that giving themselves orgasms is a godsend — you don’t feel pain as you get more aroused, and you’ll feel the after-glow as relief, too.
If this doesn’t help enough and you’re miserable in bed for days every month, or if the cramps last more than three days, speak to your doctor. A doctor can prescribe more powerful painkillers or a birth control pill, which contains hormones that often reduce menstrual cramps. You also need to rule out other causes for the pain. With endometriosis, the lining of the uterus has somehow gone outside the uterus but is in the body causing pain. Pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection that starts in the uterus and can spread. Tumors, also called fibroids, can grow on the inner wall of the uterus. Scars can narrow the cervix at the end of the uterus.
But chances are you have ordinary menstrual cramps. It’s a good time to rest, look online for a spinning or yoga class, and maybe read a novel in the bathtub.
January 27, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN