Menstrual Cramps: 5 Tips for Getting Relief From Period PainSep. 24, 2021 - Katie McCallum
That time of the month is always inconvenient and never fun.
Adjustments to your bathroom routine aside, there are several other annoying symptoms of periods. Food cravings, sleep disturbances, bloating, mood changes (usually irritability), fatigue, tender breasts and more — most of which start before your cycle even hits, serving as ominous signs of what's soon to come.
And then there are the cramps...
If you're one of the one in eight women who experience period cramps during your menstrual cycle, your time of the month is probably the worst time of the month.
Fortunately, Dr. Mae Kathleen Borchardt, OB-GYN at Houston Methodist, is here to explain why we even get menstrual cramps and help you find some period pain relief.
What causes menstrual cramps?
To understand why period cramps happen, it helps to take a step back and consider why we even have a period in the first place.
"As part of the normal reproductive cycle, a woman's body prepares for pregnancy every month. Perhaps the most well-known part of this process is menstruation, also called a period, which is when the uterus sheds its lining," explains Dr. Borchardt. "The purpose of this is to help prepare the uterus for receiving and nourishing a fertilized egg."
With this shedding comes the release of blood and tissue from inside the uterus.
But periods also come with symptoms ranging from annoying to painful, including cramps.
"In order to shed its lining, the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus contract. These contractions can cause cramping in the lower abdomen and back," says Dr. Borchardt. "Period cramping can feel differently for different women. Some have only mild discomfort, while others experience severe pain that can make everyday tasks difficult."
After menstruation — which lasts anywhere from three to seven days — your uterine lining regrows and thickens. As more time passes, ovulation occurs.
"If no fertilized egg is present after ovulation, it's a signal to your body that it's time to start the menstrual cycle over again," adds Dr. Borchardt.
And the cycle continues.
How to relieve period cramps fast at home
Here are five ways to help get relief from menstrual cramps:
1. Apply heat
"Heat can help relax the muscles contributing to cramping, so applying heat to your abdomen or back can help relieve your pain," says Dr. Borchardt.
Using a heating pad or soaking in a warm bath are great ways to ease period pain, but you can also use heating patches if you're looking for a discrete, on-the-go way to get relief.
2. Take a pain reliever
Since period cramps are painful, it's probably fairly obvious that pain relievers make the list of remedies.
But, when it comes to period cramps, are all pain reliever options created equal?
"Different classes of pain relievers work differently. For period pain, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are likely to work best since they can reduce prostaglandins — the hormones that stimulate the contractions leading to menstrual cramps," explains Dr. Borchardt.
Ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) are examples of NSAIDs. Just be sure to take each of these medications according to the label's instructions.
"Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help dull your pain, but it doesn't actually address any of the inflammation that might be contributing to the severity of your period cramps," adds Dr. Borchardt.
And while some medications claim to specifically relieve period pain, such as Midol, just be sure to check the label as many are multisymptom medications that contain several active ingredients — but don't always contain an NSAID.
When you're in pain, you may think it's best just to relax and get some rest. But physical activity is actually a natural pain reliever.
"Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which are chemicals produced by the body that help block the perception of pain," says Dr. Borchardt.
Plus, exercise is also a great way to reduce stress — which also happens to affect how you feel pain.
4. Take steps to reduce stress
"Stress affects your body in many ways, including lowering your threshold for pain," says Dr. Borchardt.
Reducing stress is easier said than done, of course, but taking steps to do so can help you find relief from period cramps.
In addition to exercise, here are several ways to reduce stress:
- Deep breathing exercises
5. Get your vitamins and minerals
Eating a healthy diet may be yet another way to relieve period pain, since certain vitamins and minerals have been suggested to help reduce cramps.
"More research is needed, but some evidence shows that vitamin B1, also called thiamin, and magnesium may help reduce period cramps. These are two vitamins and minerals that most adults typically get plenty of through a healthy diet," says Dr. Borchardt.
Foods rich in vitamin B1 and magnesium include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains
- Legumes, including beans, lentils and chickpeas
What to do when menstrual cramps are severe
The period cramp relief tips above are a good place to start, but they may not work for every woman — especially for those who have very painful cramps.
If you're experiencing serious pain during your period, it's important to talk to your OB-GYN. She or he will ask you about your symptoms and cycle and can recommend lifestyle changes that may help ease your pain, as well as perform a pelvic exam and prescribe medications, if needed.
"For instance, hormonal birth control medications are sometimes used to treat menstrual cramps and the pain that accompanies a period," adds Dr. Borchardt.
Plus, in some cases, severe pain may be a sign of something more serious.
"Beyond the significant impact that period pain can have on your everyday life, the cramps themselves aren't typically a medical concern," says Dr. Borchardt. "However, severe menstrual cramps can sometimes be caused by a more serious gynecologic condition."
In certain cases, severe period cramps can be a sign of:
- Endometriosis – uterine tissue gets implanted in your fallopian tubes, ovaries or pelvic lining
- Uterine fibroids – noncancerous uterine growths that can cause pain
- Adenomyosis – uterine tissue grows into the muscular wall of the uterus
- Pelvic inflammatory disease – infection of your uterus, fallopian tube(s) and/or ovaries
"A few of these conditions can affect fertility and impact your chances of having a successful pregnancy, which is why it's so important to be evaluated by an OB-GYN if you're experiencing serious pain," says Borchardt.
(Related: 7 Signs You Should See a Gynecologist)