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The 411 on Menstrual Cramps: Causes, Symptoms, and How to Get Natural Relief

menstrual crampingHaving your period sucks. And what’s even crummier than a week of bleeding from your hoo-ha are the cramps that come with it. Menstrual cramps (the medical term is “dysmenorrhea”) affect up to 50 percent of all menstruating women, and it can last for the first two days of your period.

Menstrual cramping can be mild or severe. But when your cramps are severe, they can be excruciatingly painful. Needless to say, cramping definitely makes you cranky and miserable to be around. (And it can also make you want to choke the life out of your husband when he says the wrong thing!)

What Causes Menstrual Cramping?

To understand why you get menstrual cramps, you have to understand how your cycle works.

On day 14 of your menstrual cycle, an egg will be released from one of your ovaries. (Hence, the name “ovulation.”) The unfertilized egg will make its way into one of your fallopian tubes, where it waits to be fertilized by a lucky sperm.

If you have unprotected sex around the time you ovulate, one lucky sperm (out of the 250 million sperm that’s released after ejaculation) will break through the tough exterior of the egg. When this happens, the sperm and egg will join together and you’ll have a baby in nine months.

But if you don’t have sex during ovulation, the egg doesn’t get fertilized and it has to be shed from your body. Hormonal levels will start to decrease, which signals to the uterus, “Hey – time to shed that thickened lining. No baby is on the way.” If you’re not pregnant, you will have your period.

The uterus sheds its lining, you’re going to start to bleed. For the first couple of days, you’ll have a heavy flow. You may have mild or severe menstrual cramps during this time.

You must remember that the uterus is a muscle, so it contracts and relaxes. When you’re having your period, the uterus contracts more strongly than normal. Hence, you’ll have cramps and feel crummy.

When your uterine muscles contract, chemicals called prostaglandins are produced. (Prostaglandins are also given to pregnant women for labor induction to speed up everything.) At the start of your period, you have high levels of prostaglandins. After a few days, the levels of these chemicals decrease – which is why your cramps go away, or decrease in severity.

Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps

If you’ve ever had your period, you know what menstrual cramps feel like. In a nutshell – they suck and they hurt.

Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) can feel like a sharp pain or discomfort in your belly area. Or they can feel like a dull ache or pressure in your abdomen. You might also have pain and discomfort in your lower back, inner thighs, and hips.

When you’re having really bad cramps, they can come with an upset stomach, loose stools, and diarrhea. Some women can get nauseous and even throw up. (Since nausea and vomiting are also pregnancy symptoms, some women can mistakenly believe that they’re pregnant. But if you’re having your period, there’s no way that you’re pregnant.)

Further reading: PMS Symptoms or Pregnancy Symptoms?

Natural Relief for Menstrual Cramps

When cramps strike, you can always take aspirin or a pain reliever (like Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve) to make the pain go away. Midol (which uses a combination of caffeine and acetaminophen) also works wonders for cramps. However, for best results, you should take pain relievers before your cramping starts.

But if you’re not a big medicine fan, why not try natural methods of getting relief from your menstrual cramps? Try the following techniques:

Heat is a girl’s best friend. When you’re having menstrual cramps, nothing will make you feel better than using a heating pad on your lower back or abdomen. A hot water bottle will work, too. Some women find taking a warm, soothing bath also helps them.

Massage also does amazing things for menstrual cramps. If you have a loving husband or partner, ask him to massage your abdomen or lower back.

Exercise is probably the last thing you want to do, but exercising and moving is one of the best ways to get relief from your menstrual cramping. When you exercise, it releases beta-endorphins (which are internal opiods, i.e. “human morphine”). Beta-endorphins offer you pain relief, and it lowers the level of prostaglandins much faster. The best exercise to try – a simple 30-minute walk.

PMS Tea is available at most supermarkets. This herbal tea is made with herbs that are supposed to relief the physical discomforts of PMS. For best results, it’s a good idea to start drinking the tea a week before your period is due.

Menstrual cramping isn’t fun, but it only lasts a couple of days. Just be patient.

About the author: DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick’s Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Ashley June 14, 2012, 1:06 pm

    A woman can bleed and still be pregnant. When you go to the doctor to get a Depo-Provera shot (a birth control given as an injection once every three months) they make you come in for the first one while you are bleeding. They do a pregnancy test first, taking a blood sample, then they give you the shot. I too once believed a period meant 100% you could not be pregnant, but that is simply not true.

  • Maria Lopes October 17, 2011, 10:28 pm

    First of all, the best option is always consulting a doctor. However I will describe what my sisters, cousins and I do.
    Cinnamon tea is great for cramps, it should be made out of the sticks not the powder.. Cinnamon tea should be avoided during pregnancy, an old native-south american woman said to me once that all bitter herbs should be avoided when pregnant, herbs such as boldo,, jasmine, Luffa operculata, Artemisia Vulgaris, , Baccharis trimera and Cassia angustifolia.
    My cramps generally only lasts the first two days, but my sister had so terrible cramps that she had to go to hospital a couple of times and thereafter had to take pre-pms meds since she was 15! It was some herbal stuff made of Borago officials, afterwards she started taking the pill. Some say the cramps get better after the first pregnancy.
    For PMS symptoms like to eat manioc/tapioca/ Wild Yam based foods and juices mixed with soy.
    I personally find the best exercise to be what I call “Scissoring legs abdominal exercise.”
    Just lay down flat an make the movement of scissoring your legs. This will strengthen the lower abdominal muscles, relieve cramps and also accelerate how fast the cycle goes away (which is good for me as my cycle generally lasts up to six days!).
    At dinner, sometimes, I like to have a glass of wine or have a “fortified wine” afterwards such as Port wine (Portuguese) or “Lacrima Christi”(which is Italian). Alcohol dilates the blood vessels, which is good when you are cramping. This is an old recipe from my great grandfather and he was a doctor. Because of that, we have a special bottle of port wine here at home with big iron nails (not too much, otherwise it will leave a too distinguished iron-y taste). The iron slowly dissolves into the wine, and makes it great for women during period as it replenishes a bit of the iron we loose in the cycle. As I have three sisters and many female cousins we have exchanged lots of tips during the years….

  • DP Nguyen July 28, 2011, 5:02 pm

    Some PMS teas are made with dandelion root, but I think chamomile tea is good for cramps too but it calls you down (lessens those mood swings). There are teas that are labeled as “PMS tea.”

    You sound like you have awful PMS. I do too, but my symptoms include cramps, exhaustion, restless leg, and crazy emotions.

  • Avalon Cat Cartoons July 28, 2011, 4:57 pm

    I’m the type with severe cramps including vomiting, trembling and sometimes even fainting, so this information is very useful to me. Didn’t know about the exercise and I never noticed the tea before. Any idea which herbs relieve cramps?

  • DP Nguyen June 16, 2011, 9:36 am

    They sell that tea at the Publix and Kroger near where I live in TN, so I hope you’ll check it out. I think tea just soothes you and makes you feel better 🙂

  • OneMommy June 16, 2011, 8:53 am

    I am going to have to look into some of that tea. LOL. I never knew it existed!

  • Kay M June 15, 2011, 3:18 pm

    Dropped by to follow, (from MomBloggersClub) and found that I already follow! Have a great Day! http://klmcaher-themorethemerrier.blogspot.com

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