Dysmenorrhea: Menstrual Cramps

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By SheCares Editorial Team | Updated: Feb 26, 2020

Of all the feminine complaints, menstrual cramps - along with breast pain - are by far the most commonly reported ones.

While the exact estimates vary greatly among women of different ages, some studies have found that period cramps affect as many as 90% of their participants.1 Because of their high prevalence, many women consider period pain as a normal part of menstruation, while they should be getting adequate treatment. 

Continue reading to learn all about dysmenorrhea, including what it is, what symptoms it produces, the main causes of painful periods, how can they affect your life, and finally, where to find the treatment you need and deserve.

Menstrual cramps

What is Dysmenorrhea?

What is dysmenorrhea

Dysmenorrhea is a medical term for painful menstrual cramps. It is the most common menstrual disorder and source of pelvic pain, both acute and chronic, in women of reproductive age. 

Types of Dysmenorrhea

Dysmenorrhea can be classified into two types:

  • Primary dysmenorrhea: common menstrual cramps without abnormal causes

  • Secondary dysmenorrhea: period pain that signals a reproductive tract disorder

It is important to note that dysmenorrhea is not the same as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), although menstrual cramps can be one of the symptoms of PMS.

Dysmenorrhea Symptoms

Dysmenorrhea symptoms, especially their duration, may vary slightly depending on whether it is due to primary or secondary causes. They are as follows:3,4

Primary Dysmenorrhea Symptoms
Secondary Dysmenorrhea Symptoms
Onset
Usually on the first day a period
Usually 1-2 days before the start of a period
Duration
8-72 hours, usually about 24 hours
More than 3 days
Location
Pressure and pain in the lower abdomen, which can radiate to lower back, inner thighs, and down the legs
Other symptoms
Possibly nausea, headaches, or diarrhea
Other cause-specific symptoms may occur, like intermenstrual bleeding, menorrhagia, or infertility
Prognosis
Often improves with age or after childbirth
Tends to worsen with age
Dysmenorrhea symptoms

Dysmenorrhea Causes

Dysmenorrhea causes

Menstrual cramps are mainly rooted in hormonal imbalance.

They can either have natural causes related to the physiological changes occurring during a period (primary dysmenorrhea) or abnormal causes related to a disease of the reproductive organs (secondary dysmenorrhea). 

Primary Dysmenorrhea Causes

Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by natural uterine contractions, which occur to help the uterus shed its lining. 

In fact, a period is simply that: the shedding of the endometrial lining that has thickened in the first part of the menstrual cycle in preparation for potential pregnancy. When pregnancy does not occur, this lining is shed with the help of uterine contractions, which are triggered by natural chemicals called prostaglandins.

For unknown reasons, some women have higher concentrations of prostaglandins, which produces stronger uterine contractions, thus constricting the blood vessels in the uterus and resulting in menstrual pain.

Secondary Dysmenorrhea Causes

Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by a disease of the reproductive tract, which might include any of the following:

Complications of Dysmenorrhea

Unresolved menstrual cramps, especially when severe, can have detrimental effects on numerous aspects of a woman's life, including the following:

  • Quality of Life. Up to 33% of women report such severe period cramps that they disable them from participating in daily activities, getting enough sleep, maintaining social bonds, and enjoying life for a few days each month.5

  • Work or School Performance. For teenagers and adolescents, dysmenorrhea is the leading cause of missing school or work.6

  • Mental Health. Being stricken with intense period pains on a regular basis has also been found to have detrimental effects on young women's mental health, including causing depression and anxiety.7

  • Overall Health. Since secondary dysmenorrhea occurs due to an underlying condition, not finding adequate treatment can lead to its progression, thus causing further damage to a woman's reproductive health and taking a bigger toll on her life.

Dysmenorrhea Treatment

Dysmenorrhea treatment

A key factor in choosing the right treatment for menstrual cramps is whether it has normal or abnormal causes.

Generally, women are advised to promote hormonal balance through lifestyle changes and alternative medicine, before moving to conventional medicine.  

Lifestyle Changes for Period Pain

  • Nutritious diet with complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats is key to optimal menstruation health, including regular and pain-free periods. Adding phytoestrogenic foods, like flax or oats, is also beneficial.

  • Regular exercise has shown significant improvements in lowering period pains, most probably due to their effects of stimulating blood flow to the pelvis and the release of pain-relieving endorphins.8 

  • Home remedies, like applying a heating pad or hot water bottle, are some of the most popular and effective dysmenorrhea treatment approaches, especially for mild to moderate discomforts.

  • Alternative therapies, like acupuncture or massage, can help with menstrual cramps through a variety of actions, although scientific research on their effectiveness is still scarce.

Alternative Medicine for Period Pain

  • Nutritional supplements, like fish oil, thiamine, pyridoxine, and magnesium, have been shown to aid in reducing the severity or duration of menstrual cramps.3

  • Phytoestrogenic supplements, like ginseng, contain plant-based compounds that mimic the action of estrogen in the body, thus contributing to balancing hormones and relieving painful periods.

  • Hormone-regulating supplements, like Macafem Healthy Periods, can be effective in relieving menstrual pain by nourishing the endocrine glands to regulate hormone production and menstrual cycles.

Conventional Medicine for Period Pain

  • Medications are mainly oriented towards relieving period pain and inhibiting prostaglandins with analgesics or birth control pills. Secondary dysmenorrhea treatment will focus on managing the underlying cause.

  • Surgery can be necessary for severe menstrual cramps due to uterine fibroids or endometriosis, whether it consists of their removal, growth inhibition, or - in rare cases - uterus removal, known as a hysterectomy.

Key Takeaways

Women often accept menstrual cramps as an integral part of womanhood, not knowing that experiencing intense period pain can and should be treated. While most discomforts during menses are caused by normal uterine contractions that help shed the lining (primary dysmenorrhea), some have symptoms that are indicative of a disease of the reproductive tract, thus calling for proper evaluation (secondary dysmenorrhea). Treatment will depend on the exact cause of period cramps, ranging from lifestyle changes of a healthy diet, exercise, and natural remedies to herbal supplements, like Macafem Healthy Periods for optimal menstrual health, to medications aimed at relieving the pain and treating the underlying conditions that cause it. With the right initiative, women can reduce or eliminate period pain for a better quality of life for years to come!