Cramps. Gnawing dull pain, sharp aches or rolling spasms, they come in all kinds of annoying varieties. An irritating inconvenience for one person is debilitating pain for someone else, with days off school required to spend curled up with a hot water bottle.
Historically, cramps were just something people had to deal with and power through, but this is finally changing. Recently there has been much more open discussion and study around periods and the intense pain they can cause, and the medical world is taking the treatment of cramps more seriously.
As someone who suffers from truly awful period pains (think being unable to move for hours at a time) I wanted to find out more from an expert. I asked Dr. Shirley McQuade, women’s health expert and Medical Director at the Dublin Well Woman Centre a few burning questions.
It feels like thousands of tiny knives stabbing me, but what’s actually happening to my body?
“The womb is made of muscle and when the muscle starts contracting to shed the lining of the womb (a period) women experience cramping. So, period cramping tends to happen for a day or two before bleeding starts and for the first 2 – 3 days of bleeding.”
Life is an unfair lottery, and I wanted to know why some people get exhausting period pains while others get off scot-free. Apparently, it’s all about ‘pain factors’ (things called prostaglandins and leukotrienes). Scientists have found there are higher levels of these substances in people who experience more severe pain around that time of the month.
Wait though, I’m getting cramps at weird times…
If you’ve just gotten your period and are experiencing cramps at other more unusual times in your cycle, don’t worry too much. “For the first year or two after periods start – and sometimes longer – periods are not regular and so cramping can happen at other times with little or no bleeding.”
You can also get cramps in the middle of your cycle – this is down to ovulation. It’s a good idea to keep a pain record to spot patterns, this can help you and your doctor figure out what other reasons there might be for your discomfort. Avoid self-diagnosing online, as this most likely will just cause you unnecessary anxiety (speaking from experience).
So, how do I deal with them?
A lot of people can deal with cramps in a straightforward way. They might just need a regular painkiller like paracetamol for the first day of their period. Others are sadly not as lucky, and Dr McQuade says a visit to the doctor is vital if your cramps are getting in the way of your routine and plans.
“You should see a doctor if the pain is interfering with your life – either regularly missing days from school or not being able to go out with friends. Most women will experience some cramping at period time but it should not stop your normal life. The doctor will ask about your diet and exercise level and what you have tried so far for the pain. Ask about the treatment choices available. Often this kind of period pain gets better as you get older.”
My friends don’t get them, so they don’t understand how bad it is…
People who don’t experience cramps can sometimes be insensitive about how much pain you’re in, but Dr. McQuade emphasises that if you’re cancelling plans regularly because of your pain, you need to talk to a medical professional. The best ways to cope with menstrual pain are regular exercise and a good diet, they can make a massive difference to how you feel during your period. If you’re not able to do any major exercise, some light yoga or pilates stretches really do make a difference.
Although we all reach for the chocolate during those tough few days, this can cause your blood sugars to spike and drop (it’s best to keep them stable). Skipping meals is also a big no-no, you need to care for your body and keep it nourished. Dr. McQuade is also an advocate of the trusty hot water bottle.
In terms of medicine, taking ibuprofen three times a day, two days before your period starts is what Dr. McQuade recommends. Prevention is better than cure. “Since the “pain factors” we mentioned earlier start being released before a period happens, it’s much more effective than waiting for the period pain to begin.”
Help! They are still really painful
Unfortunately some of us need other pain killers as ibuprofen might not have much of an effect on extreme cases. There are plenty of other brilliant options you can try out, under a doctor’s supervision of course. Many women also find taking the contraceptive pill can alleviate period pains, so this is also worth bringing up the next time you go to your GP.
Tracking your period in a notebook or using an app is probably one of the most useful things you can do. By recording your cycles and other menstrual symptoms like fatigue, nausea, tender boobs and bloating, you can see a clearer picture of what’s going on with your body. You’ll feel more in control and be able to explain your problems to your doctor clearly, ensuring you get the help that’s specific to you.
Don’t suffer in silence, and don’t let period pains take over your life. There are so many solutions out there that will make things easier for you.
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Image: Legally Blonde