Period Pains: Why We Cramp (and What to Do)

Each person’s experience with having periods is unique. Some might have lighter periods while others have heavier ones.

Some might have shorter periods while others have longer ones. Periods may be completely painless for some while others find them debilitating.

How common is it to have painful periods?

Most people experience some form of cramping for the first day or two during their menstrual cycle. That’s absolutely normal. Compared to most adult menstruating people, teenagers are more likely to go through painful periods.

Many older people, however, have period problems that aren’t the most easy to manage--sometimes requiring time off work or school. Luckily, lots of research has gone into period cramping, so we’ve compiled not only some common treatments for this type of pain, but also an overview of why it happens in the first place.

Why period cramping occurs

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for menstrual cramps. During a person’s menstrual cycle, the endometrium (also known as the mucous membrane lining the uterus) thickens and renews itself to prepare for potential pregnancy. Waiting to implant an embryo, the uterus grows a thick lining with a rich blood supply.

If pregnancy does not occur, the body naturally produces a period: the endometrium’s byproduct. Blood vessels open up, the lining begins to shed off the uterine wall, and the uterine muscle contracts to expel tissue and blood.

Many people experience lower abdominal cramping as blood is expelled throughout the uterine body and out of the cervix before making its way out the vagina.

Prostaglandins — hormone-like compounds that the body produces — trigger contractions and are the primary source of menstrual pelvic pain. More severe menstrual cramps are associated with higher levels of prostaglandins.

Should I be concerned about my period pain?

The answer is based on the two kinds of period pain: primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea.

Primary Dysmenorrhea

Most women experience primary dysmenorrhea, the type that teenagers get as soon as they start menstruating. As teenagers get older, the condition typically improves, but many women still experience some degree of pain as they age. Pain typically begins a day or two before bleeding begins, and can last anywhere from 12 to 72 hours. Menstruating people report pain in their lower abdomen, back, and even thighs; in severe cases, it can result in vomiting, fatigue, headaches, and diarrhea.

This type of dysmenorrhea is very unpleasant, but also very normal. In fact, prevalence rates have been as high as 90 percent among menstruating people. There are various factors that impact the presence of this disorder -- exercise and diet, family history, body weight, age, onset of menstruation -- but for the most part, its appearance is not within the realm of control. Note that period pain is not the same thing as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which causes many different symptoms (weight gain, irritability), and typically begins one to two weeks before the start of the period.

Secondary Dysmenorrhea

Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused, not by the period cycle itself, but by diseases related to the reproductive system, including uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and certain types of infections. This type of dysmenorrhea is unique in that it typically begins earlier in the menstrual cycle and lasts longer than usual, and is not typically accompanied by any of the above cramping side effects, and is more common among older menstruating people. Should you experience pain that’s not directly related to your menstrual cycle, or if it’s so painful that it’s severely disrupting your work or home life, consult your doctor. They may recommend a pelvic exam, ultrasound, or even a laparoscopy to rule out any of the previously listed reproductive diseases.

6 Period Pain Remedies

Try some — or all — of the following 6 solutions to menstrual cramping:

  1. Take aspirin: For mild menstrual cramps, take aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. These types of drugs prevent pain by blocking prostaglandins from being released. NSAIDs work best when taken early in the menstrual cycle, as soon as you notice symptoms of dysmenorrhea, or even one to two days before your cycle begins. You should only need to take them for a day or two, as cramps typically subside on their own. Avoid this type of medication if you have stomach problems, such as ulcers.

  2. Try home remedies: There are innumerable home remedies and suggestions for alleviating period cramps. Some alternative treatments include taking Vitamin B, or magnesium supplements, or the use of acupuncture, yoga, and regular exercise. Use of various herbal and dietary supplements has garnered mixed scientific reviews, but some women swear by their supplements of ginger, fennel, or Vitamin E – so if you discover a remedy that works for you, enjoy!

  3. Apply heat: An oft-lauded form of short-term treatment: simply place a hot water bottle or heating pad on your lower back or lower stomach, or take a warm bath for some relief. Try also to rest when needed, and avoid salt, caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol.

  4. Have orgasms: To top off the list of home remedies, orgasms have also been reported to alleviate menstrual cramps. Orgasms cause the body to release oxytocin and dopamine, as well as various other cramp-fighting endorphins.

    Scientific research in this area is limited, but many women will be quick to tell you that sex or masturbation is a quick-fix for period cramps.

    There are innumerable Internet resources on how to enjoy mess-free period sex (period discs, like Flex, practically eliminate this problem altogether), and at the very least, it’s a way to get your mind miles away from the pain!

  5. Hormonal Treatment: If you consult your doctor about dysmenorrhea, they may suggest hormonal treatment. Birth control pills, the patch, IUDs, and hormonal implants are sometimes effective because they thin out the lining of the uterus, lessening blood flow and by extent, cramping.

    These birth control methods, while occasionally effective in treating dysmenorrhea, can also cause unpredictable side effects, so are certainly not the perfect or only option for women with severe menstrual cramps.

    Menstrual discs, such as Flex, reduce cramps for up to 70% of consumers--a great alternative to pads, tampons, and menstrual cups.

  6. Crowdsource: Because nearly every person who menstruates has had some degree of period cramping, one of the best ways to address dysmenorrhea is by simply asking your friends and family members what they find to be most effective. You never know what surprising trick your mother or grandmother may have up her sleeve.


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