To some degree, most women experience menstrual cramping in the lower abdomen, lower back, thighs, and hip areas. The pain does not dominate more on one side and the severity of symptoms varies between individuals. 1 in 10 women do experience severe cramping associated with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and headache.
Cramps come from contractions of the uterus, which is a smooth muscle. Menstrual cramps arise from the action of prostaglandin, a hormone on the smooth muscle of the uterus. Prostaglandin is abundant in the uterine muscle and increase in amount just before menses. These chemicals stimulate the uterus to contract, or cramp. As menstrual flow continues, the prostaglandin is released with the discharge. It tends to be that high flow days are crampiest, and then this subsides as the flow lightens.
Relief measures for menstrual cramps
Apply heat, either with heating pads against the lower abdomen or a weighty and warm hot water bottle against the crampy area.
Rest either with bent knees curled toward the belly, or supported beneath the knees with 1 or 2 pillows.
Analgesics, over the counter medication can be very helpful, but it is most beneficial if taken before the cramping symptoms increase.
Ibuprofen, along with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, has an action that decreases prostaglandin activity and relieves symptoms. There are cautions relating to its potential to be harsh on sensitive stomachs – so read the label of these products thoroughly and consult with your physician when necessary. Acetaminophen is another over the counter medication that has analgesic effects and may help to relieve symptoms.
Prescriptions for oral contraceptives have been shown to decrease cramping. Your health care provider can advise the best option for your specific needs.
Consult your health care provider if your cramps are:
- Regularly severe, incapacitating and last for more than 2–3 days
- Bothering you when you don’t have your period
- More severe on one side or are one-sided only (this may be an emergency!)
- Associated with a fever or fainting