When women reach puberty and have their first menstruation, most of them start struggling with period pain, the so-called dysmenorrhoea.
It usually starts when 'Aunt Flo' knocks on the door (bleeding), and normally lasts for 48 to 72 hours. Period pains are characterised by painful muscle cramps that hit the lower tummy, but can also spread to the back and thighs as well. Other times, they can come in spasms or in a dull pain that may bother you for hours with no break.
Such painful periods can literally tear you down and keep you from going to work or school, and that's what makes them different from regular menstruations, which are accompanied by discomfort (but nearly as achy as a severe period pain).
Why does period pain happen?
Basically, period pain is triggered by prostaglandins, substances that can make the wall of the uterus contract and press against blood vessels, which may prevent the womb from getting its oxygen supply temporarily. Such contractions, which tend to be painful, help the uterus shed its monthly lining... After all, this is what menstruation is about.
You need to know that there are two kinds of period pain: the primary dysmenorrhoea, which occurs in healthy women who suffer from pain before and during their menstruation, and the secondary dysmenorrhoea. The latter strikes women who used to have normal periods in the past, but that later on started experiencing period pain. The secondary dysmenorrhoea is usually a sign of underlying conditions, such as:
- Fibroids (benign tumors) in the uterus
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Cervical stenosis
- Intrateurine devices (IUDs) made of copper
- Stress and anxiety
How common is period pain?
Up to 90% of fertile women suffer from period pain, though its intensity varies depending on the person and the kind of dysmenorrhoea. For example, according to experts, primary dysmenorrhoea tends to get better as women get older, especially once they've given birth.
Though every woman copes with menstruation in a different way, there are certain risk factors that can lead to painful periods. Have a look at the following ones:
- Being under 20 years old
- When period pain runs in the family
- Having heavy bleeding during periods
- Irregular periods
- Going through an early puberty, before the age of 11
- Not having had a baby before
How to relieve severe period pain
You should try to soothe your pain by embracing a home treatment. For instance, you can use a heating pad on your back or pelvic area, take a warm bath, massage your abdomen when having cramps, avoid having copious meals and eating light, instead, or do regular physical activity. In addition, you can consider relaxation techniques or disciplines like yoga (although there are certain positions that aren't recommended while you're on your period), along with adopting certain body positions, like lying with your knees bent or raising your legs. Taking vitamins, as well as magnesium and calcium supplements, can provide you with some relief too, and don't forget to cut down on alcohol, caffeine and sugar. This can help you prevent bloating.
If home treatment, including anti-inflammatory medication, doesn't work out, you'll have to contact the doctor to get additional help. He or she may prescribe you non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), narcotics to relieve the pain and antidepressants, in case you are under high levels of stress and anxiety. If your pain happens to be caused by pelvic inflammatory disease or sexual transmitted infections (STDIs) you may be given antibiotics in order to combat the infection. The doctor may suggest trying hormonal birth control, which works better to keep menstrual cramps under control. Of course, if you have underlying conditions such endometriosis, fibroids or cysts, you may have to undergo surgery.
You should also have a visit to the doctor if complications arise. For example, when you pass blood clots, have cramps accompanied by diarrhoea and nausea, have pelvic pain when not menstruating or you feel a sudden pain after placing an IUD. Things can get worse if you have an untreated infection, which may lead to infertility, and that's why you have to seek medical help immediately. Do it if you have a fever, severe pelvic pain and foul-smelling vaginal discharge during your period pains.
To sum up, the fact that period pain is very common doesn't mean that you have to put up with it. If you are one of those ladies who experience severe ones, it's time to stop wondering how to stop it and put some of the advice listed above into practice. Hopefully, adapting certain aspects of your lifestyle may help improve your symptoms.