Menstrual cramps are experienced by many women during their monthly cycle which causes dull throbbing pain in the lower abdomen. For some women the pain will be before the menstrual periods and for some it will be there for 3-5 days of the period. Many women will feel discomfort due to this dull pain and for some women it will be difficult to carry out routine work due to this throbbing pain. In medical term, menstrual cramps are called dysmenorrhea. Exact causes of menstrual cramps are not known but it can be treated easily.
How common is menstrual cramps?
More than 50% of the women are getting affected with menstrual cramps and about 15-20% of them will have severe pain. The pain may range from mild to very severe. For some women no pain is felt and only heaviness is experienced in the abdomen region and for others it can cause severe cramps also.
Two types of dysmenorrhea are recognized. First is the primary dysmenorrhea in which there will not be any underlying problem but still there will be pain. Menstrual cramps will begin within few months of getting first period and continue to cause pain during the process when the eggs are released from the ovaries. Second one is the secondary dysmenorrhea in which there can be problems in the women’s reproductive system that causes menstrual cramps.
There can be dull and throbbing pain in the lower belly area. Pain is experienced to originate from the lower back region and spread till your thighs. For some women, there can be nausea, vomiting, headache, sweating and dizziness during menstrual cramps. A strong feeling of discomfort will be there from the lower back region till the legs. The intensity of pain can range from dull to severe. Menstrual cramps will begin before the actual period starts and can continue till the bleeding is there.
What exactly causes menstrual cramps is not known.
The process of ovulation can be explained as follows:-
Each month, the body of the women prepares itself for a healthy fertilized embryo and builds up inner lining of the uterus to accommodate it. In case the egg is not fertilized there will not be any pregnancy and hence the lining of the uterus is to be cleared. Eventually the hormone levels will get reduced and the uterus gets swollen to shed the (built up) inner lining which will be replaced by fresh lining next month.
Some substances called prostaglandins are produced when the lining starts to break down. This can cause contraction of the muscles of the uterus thus blocking the normal blood supply to the endometrium. This will eventually cause death of tissue lining due to lack of oxygen and the uterus will squeeze the old lining layer through your cervix in the form of menstrual bleeding. Menstrual cramps can be caused due to endometriosis (when the lining builds up outside the uterus), presence of fibroids in the uterus and due to pelvic inflammatory disease.
What factors aggravates menstrual cramps?
If the opening of the cervix region is very narrow, it can increase the pain during cramps. Emotional stress and lack of exercise can also aggravate menstrual cramps during periods. Beginning puberty in early ages (11 years or even younger), irregular periods, heavy bleeding, and family history of dysmenorrhea can cause more pain during monthly cycles.
No tests or examinations are available for diagnosing menstrual cramps. But cramps can be measured by the way uterus contracts which causes change in pressure. Every woman with cramps will know the typical symptoms of dull pain in her lower abdomen. To rule out any other abnormality in the reproductive organ, your doctor may do ultrasound scan or MRI scanning. In case she suspects fibroids she would do hysteroscopy procedure which gives the clear picture of polyps or fibroids inside the uterus.
Mild to moderate menstrual cramps will go away without any treatment. You can ask your partner to do abdominal massage to get relief from pain. Alternatively some women use a heating pad right on the abdomen to get relief from discomfort. However if you feel that menstrual cramps interrupts your daily activities you can take anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen, naproxen and other medications. Prescription drugs like mefenamic and ponstel can also be used.
Taking oral birth control pills will help to prevent ovulation process. You can have it either in the form of oral pills or as injections. Surgery is done if the doctor suspects menstrual cramps are caused due to underlying problem like fibroids or cysts. There is a procedure called endometrial ablation that the entire lining of the uterus is burned away using a special device.