Menstrual cramps are most likely caused by an excess of prostaglandins—compounds that are released from the uterine lining as it prepares to be shed. They are a necessary part of the process, but in excess, they cause pain.
Take the edge off with a heat compress and a common anti-inflammatory pain medication, like ibuprofen.
For prevention, consider a magnesium supplement. This mineral may be effective in lessening menstrual pain over time, and reducing the need for pain medication.
You’re probably familiar with period cramps: uterine cramps around the time of your period, which are typically felt in the abdomen, back, or thighs. You might also experience pain in the middle of your cycle during ovulation.
Most people first notice menstrual cramps about 6 months to a year after getting their first period (1). At first, they may come and go, and then happen in all or most cycles (as ovulation happens more frequently).
People typically feel their cramps just before or at the time when bleeding begins each cycle. They usually last about one to three days. They may start strong and feel better as the hours pass, or come and go more randomly. Cramps can be barely noticeable, or quite painful or severe (2). 1 in 10 people experience pain levels that can affect their daily activities for 1-3 days each cycle. Moderate to intense pain is more common 2 to 3 years after your first period (menarche) and usually gets better after age 20, or after pregnancy and birth (2).
Menstrual cramps that are severe are usually associated with medical conditions like endometriosis or adenomyosis. Female pain is often overlooked and/or under-treated in comparison to male pain presentation (3). It’s common for a young person suffering from severe menstrual pain not to talk about it with their doctor (4). When it comes to menstrual cramps, it’s important to advocate for yourself and communicate your pain levels to a healthcare provider. Keeping track of your pain with an app, like Clue, can be helpful.
Getting familiar with the basics of menstrual cycle-related pain can help you understand if your pain might be something to talk to your healthcare provider about.
What causes period cramps?
Menstrual cramps are most likely caused by an excess of prostaglandins—hormone-like compounds that are released from the uterine lining (the endometrium) as it prepares to be shed. Prostaglandins help the uterus contract and relax, so that the endometrium can detach and flow out of your body. They are a necessary part of the process, but in excess, they cause pain if the uterus contracts strongly, blood flow is reduced, and the supply of oxygen to the uterus muscle tissue decreases, causing pain (5).
For most people with period cramps, it’s still unknown what predisposes them, and not others, to painful menstruation. Inflammation may play a role. The production of prostaglandins is related to inflammation, and inflamed tissue tends to produce more prostaglandins (6). People who experience more menstrual pain have also been shown to have higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, even after adjustment for factors related to chronic inflammation, like BMI, smoking, and alcohol consumption (7). Inflammation has also been linked to the worsening of other premenstrual symptoms, including mood changes.
People are more likely to have painful periods if they have heavy or long period bleeding, if they started menstruating early in life, or if their periods are irregular (8, 9). Other factors that have been associated with painful periods include smoking, being thin, being younger than 30, having a pelvic infection, and being sterilized (8).
Research done by Clue with Oxford University also found that Clue users with undiagnosed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were more likely to experience certain premenstrual symptoms, including cramps, than those without STIs (10).
How do I relieve my period cramps?
If your periods are heavy, irregular, or extremely painful, trying to find and treat the cause of your irregularities may be important for your health. Other approaches to relieving cramps, like hormonal birth control, act by preventing the building and shedding of the endometrium.
All methods of cramp relief do at least one of the following:
- Reduce inflammation
- Limit prostaglandin production
- Block pain
- Increase uterine blood flow, or
- Treat an underlying condition, like endometriosis
- Methods you might try include:
- Transcutaneous Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
- Diet changes
- Stress relief
- Quitting smoking
Medication for period cramps
Anti-inflammatory painkillers are an effective way to get relief from period pain (11). NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen, inhibit the production of prostaglandins and inflammation. Other types of over-the counter painkillers may reduce pain, but tend to be less effective for treating menstrual cramps (12). NSAIDs are also used in reducing heavy bleeding (13).
Some people may choose to use hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill or the hormonal IUD, to relieve and prevent menstrual cramps. The synthetic hormones in these methods block ovulation, and/or prevent the typical growth and shedding of the uterine wall. This reduces or eliminates the associated build-up of prostaglandins, muscle contractions and cramps (14).
Heat for period cramps
Your grandmother’s hot water bottle is nothing to scoff at—heat is a low-fi, but tried and true method of relieving pain from menstrual cramps, and it’s cheap and has no side effects. Heat has been shown to be as effective as NSAIDs and aspirin for menstrual cramp pain (15-17).
If you want to copy the regime of one of the studies on heat and cramp relief, try using a “continuous low-level topical heat therapy” from a heated patch, pad, or water bottle.
Transcutaneous nerve stimulation and period cramps
Transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS) is an approved treatment for menstrual cramps. It uses a small machine to deliver low-voltage electrical current to the skin, possibly raising a user’s pain threshold and stimulating the release of the body’s natural endorphins (5).
TENS can also be combined with other methods, like heat and medication.
Diet for period cramps
As more is learned on the relationship between inflammation and period cramps, we may see recommendations for cramp-prevention diets. So far though, the data on this is limited but promising, and there are no formal clinical recommendations.
One clinical trial of 33 women with menstrual pain found that women had less menstrual pain when they followed a low fat-vegetarian diet than when they were taking a placebo dietary supplement pill (18).
A survey of 127 students found that those who reported consuming 3-4 servings of dairy had less menstrual pain than those consumed no dairy at all. This is possibly due to the intake of calcium, and maybe also vitamin D, but more research is needed—a trial on vitamin D found that very high doses were required to make a difference, which some (but not all) practitioners would consider unsafe (19-21).
Supplements for period cramps
The evidence for supplements to treat menstrual cramps isn’t well established, but you may find something that works for you if you’re open to experimenting. Check with a nutritionally-trained practitioner before taking a supplement—like any medicine, they can have side effects and interfere with levels of other nutrients in the body. Here are the top-evidenced supplements for period pain:
Ginger, it seems, may be as effective as common painkillers. Two systematic reviews of ginger for menstrual pain found that the root was likely more effective than a placebo for reducing pain (23,24). Clinical trials of more than 100 students with moderate to severe period pain found that pain was similarly reduced in students taking ginger, as students taking the NSAIDs Ibuprofen or mefenamic acid (25,26). One ginger group took 250mg capsules of zintoma ginger extract, from the start of their periods, and then every 6 hours, until their pain was relieved. The other took 1000mg of “ginger rhizome powder” daily (divided over 4X per day) for the first three days of their period.