What causes period pain?


Nobody can afford to be out of it for a few days every month. And yet that is the reality for many women when period pain strikes. It is often experienced as a dull ache or painful cramp in the lower tummy – and as every woman who has gone through this will know, your back and thighs can hurt too. It’s usually all over in two to three days. But who can afford to lose three days every month?

You’re not suffering alone – few women sail through their periods without a twinge, and about one in every 5 is in enough pain that they’ll reach for the painkillers, according to the National Health Service (UK).

But wait – that’s not all. As if cramps are not enough, there’s the added joy of headaches, a feeling of tiredness, dizziness, diarrhoea and nausea. So altogether, not a happy event for many women.

Why does this happen?

A quick bit of biology: during your period, the muscles in the wall of the uterus contract in order to shake off the lining. Many women don’t feel this at all, whereas others are in agony. What is it that causes the pain? When your uterus contracts, blood vessels around the lining are squeezed, and for a while it cuts off the blood supply.

This is when your body turns on you by releasing pain-triggering chemicals in order to encourage the contractions. They actually make the pain worse. This is where the feeling of ongoing cramping comes from.

These chemicals can build up over time and add to your woes. They can also be blamed for nausea and diarrhoea and headaches during a painful period.

Treatment for period pain

Painkillers to the rescue. These include the stuff you can get over the counter, such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen. If these don’t touch sides, you will have to go to the doctor to get a prescription for something stronger.

Some GPs will prescribe the contraceptive pill for women with period pains. This thins the lining of the uterus, and helps to reduce the level of painful cramping during your period.

There probably isn’t a woman alive who has not tried the hot-water bottle remedy, or a hot bath or shower. Some people say exercise works for them, but others feel too downright miserable to even try it. Learning to relax can also help, so sign up for a yoga or Pilates class. But these will only make a difference if you are not in total agony. Then it’s time to call in the big guns.

Conditions that make period pain worse

But if your periods get out of hand, there might be something else that is wrong and causing you this monthly misery. It might be time to get to the GP, as you might have one of the following conditions:

·        Fibroids (these are growths in the uterus)

·        A bacterial infection in the womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries

·        An ovarian cyst – these are especially common in women with polycystic ovaries (PCOS)

·        Endometriosis (this causes uterine tissue to grow outside of the uterus in other parts of the body. This condition can affect fertility)

·        An ectopic pregnancy (a fertilised egg is growing the fallopian tube outside of the uterus)

·        A narrow cervix

·        Some intra-uterine devices can make period pain worse

The important thing is to look out for changes in your monthly cycle. If things have always been OK, and suddenly you’re doubled up, or the sluice gates open, or they disappear entirely, or only put in a guest appearance now and then, it’s time to have things checked out.

For everyone, it is a good idea always to have a painkiller (and a tampon or pad) in your handbag. There are few things that are more grim than being stuck without a painkiller in a three-hour long meeting when you’re having serious period pain. Be prepared.

(References: NHS (UK); National Institutes of Health)

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer.

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