Unless you live in a tampon commercial, you probably don’t feel so hot while on your period. For some women, it’s just a small inconvenience. For others, it comes with an entire plate of lovely symptoms: bloating, aches, fatigue, irritability, and, of course, cramps. Each month, when your uterus sheds its blood lining, it can seem as if your entire lower body is rebelling against you.
“Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) are pains in the abdomen or pelvic area experienced by a woman before or during her menstrual period,” says Mary Clarkin, a Cleveland-based women’s health nurse practitioner. “The pain may be may be mild to severe and described as dull, throbbing or cramping. It may be merely annoying or so painful that performing everyday activities is compromised.” In the latter group? Read on for tips and tricks from collegiettes and our expert about how to get rid of your cramps and prevent them from happening in the first place.
Why do we get cramps?
“The pain is caused when muscles of the uterus tighten,” Clarkin says. Every time you get your period, your body releases prostaglandins, a hormone that makes your uterus contract, which allows your body to rid itself of blood—useful, but often painful. There are two types of cramps: what doctors call “primary dysmenorrhea” and “secondary dysmenorrhea.” The primary kind is your typical run-of-the-mill period cramps. “Secondary dysmenorrhea, pain caused by a disorder of the reproductive organs, usually begins earlier in the menstrual cycle and lasts longer than primary dysmenorrhea. Endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease and fibroids are a few conditions that can cause secondary dysmenorrhea,” Clarkin says. If your cramps last longer than a few days and are causing you severe pain, see a doctor in case you have secondary dysmenorrhea. The following tips in this article are for girls suffering from typical menstrual cramps, so see a doctor for help managing more serious cramps.
Step One: Try a painkiller
Like many aches and pains, menstrual cramps are also often effectively reduced with the use of an NSAID, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Many girls use Midol, which contains acetaminophen, also a painkiller. Taking an NSAID the day you expect your period to come, or a few days before, can really help stop the cramping before it starts. “During a period the uterus contracts causing pain. There is also an increase in hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which are involved in pain and inflammation. These medications counteract the increase in prostaglandin activity,” Clarkin says. Follow the bottle’s instructions (take with food!) and keep count of how many you take in a day so you don’t overdose, which can harm your liver. These drugs don’t work immediately, though. If you want supplementary relief or if you’d prefer to go drug-free, go to step two.
Step Two: Get hot
Heat is a wonderful, completely natural way to soothe your cramps. According to Clarkin, heat helps the muscles in your pelvis relax. Many collegiettes recommend sipping on some hot tea. “Hot tea works for me. My mom said she used it back in the day and it works for me now,” says Mariah, a collegiette from Virginia State University. Try a calming herbal tea like chamomile, lavender or peppermint. Or, take North Carolina State collegiette Misha’s advice: “This really works for me: boil cinnamon sticks in water and put in a little sugar. Drink it as a tea and that really helps!” Beyond tea, there are other ways to calm your system. Try a hot bath or use a heating pad or hot water bottle, says Harvard collegiette Kema. Get in bed and put something hot right over your lower abdomen for quick, soothing relief. You can buy heating pads and hot water bottles at your local drug store, or make your own! Simply get an old sock, fill it with uncooked white rice, tie it up and microwave for one or two minutes.