A simple guide to a monthly problem
Updated: Jul 1
By Katja Montesque
Sounds like a pretty nasty word doesn’t it? You mightn’t actually have heard the word before, but it is actually referring to something more common than you think.
What is Dysmenorrhea? Dysmenorrhea basically means “pain during menstruation”, otherwise known as menstrual cramps.
Periods?! Why am I speaking about periods? Well, because a large portion people with uteruses will experience periods, and it’s about time we normalise them and the symptoms they bring with them. It kind of dawned on me that this is a topic not everyone talks about, and especially not one everyone wants to listen to. I realised that, were I to be suffering from extreme menstrual pain during my 9-5, it would be an extremely awkward conversation to have with my bosses, and I am not even sure they would understand or take it seriously.
For this reason, I think it is important to have a basic understanding of cramps, what they are, how they happen, and what we can do to lessen the pain, whilst also understanding that they are very real, and can be very painful.
Menstrual cramps are fairly common, Bupa estimates that as many as 9 out of 10 women suffer from period pains. The pain usually begins a couple of days before your period, and it can end a couple of days after the bleeding has stopped. Whilst period pains are often thought of as common, it is estimated that somewhere between 5 to 20% of women suffer from pains so severe that they interfere with their daily lives (Centre for Young Women’s Health). Whilst this isn’t rare, it’s not necessarily normal either, and if your menstruation keeps you from going about your day to day life, you should speak to a doctor to rule out any other causes for extreme discomfort.
What are period pains? They are usually painful cramping sensations located in the lower abdomen and pelvic regions, and can often also result in back aches, headaches and nausea amongst other symptoms.
Sounds familiar? If it does, then my full sympathies, period cramps are no fun at all. If not, then aren’t you lucky?
What causes period pain?
Period pains are caused by the contraction of your uterus’ wall, which compresses the blood vessels that line it. This essentially cuts off the blood supply to the organ, which means that the oxygen supply to your uterus is cut off. This in turn causes the muscles in your body to release chemicals which cause pain. In the mean-time, your body is also busy producing prostaglandins, another set of chemicals which encourage your uterus to contract further, causing even more pain.
There are two types of painful period cramps, often referred to as primary and secondary dysmenorrhea.
Primary dysmenorrhea is the common menstrual cramps mentioned above; they last a 1-4 days (usually), and are often recurring. There is no underlying cause for this type of pain, and is often believed to lessen with age.
Secondary dysmenorrhea, however, is pain caused by a health condition in the uterus and/or varies. Some examples of these conditions are: endometriosis (the most common cause), pelvic inflammatory disease, adenomyosis, ovarian cysts or fibroids. This type of Dysmenorrhea is more common among those with heavy periods, irregular periods, whose periods started before twelve years of age, or who have a low body weight. To check for any of these conditions, you should visit your doctor, and ask for a pelvic examination or an ultrasound.
How can you help lessen the pain of Dysmenorrhea?
If you can, take over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol.
Place a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower abdomen
Avoid caffeine, this can worsen cramping
Avoid alcohol and tobacco
If you can, try some light exercising (period pains tend to be less common in people who exercise regularly)
Chamomile tea is often cited as a natural way of helping cramps
Consider speaking to your doctor about using contraceptive methods to help with the pain.
With all this considered, your period pains are probably normal and can be easily self-treated.
However, if you have further concerns, or the cramping is so painful it interferes with your daily activities and normal life, try to see a doctor. It’s best to err on the side of caution I’d think!