If you get periods, it's likely that you will have experienced period pain at some point. Thankfully, most of the time menstrual cramps can be managed using tried and tested methods at home.
If you've been having periods for a while, you might be able to notice the tell-tale signs of period pain in your tummy, back and legs, whether it's dull and constant or short painful spasms. But what causes it?
"Period pain, or menstrual cramps, are caused by contractions in the womb as it expels the womb lining and presses on blood vessels, which temporarily cut off the blood supply and restrict oxygen," says Dr Vanessa Mackay, consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. This causes the tissues in the womb to release chemicals triggering pain.
These contractions can cause pain and discomfort during your period and can make it difficult to concentrate while doing everyday tasks. In fact, a recent study found that period pain accounts for nine days of lost productivity for women each year.
Period pain tends to follow a pattern which distinguishes it from ordinary stomach or back pain. "Period pain is usually at its most intense during the first few days of bleeding and can vary for each woman," says Mackay.
Period pain should only occur in the few days before or during your period, says Mackay. "It is a good idea to seek advice if this pain continues throughout the month as this may be a symptom of a different problem."
If your period pain isn't caused by an underlying condition or causing severe pain, you should be able to treat it without seeing a doctor.
"Many women find that heat is helpful to manage their period pain, so using a hot water bottle or a heat pad or having a warm bath could provide some comfort," says Mackay. Using heat is a cheap, effective and side-effect-free way to bring down your pain. One study found that using a heat pad was as effective as painkillers.
Warmth applied directly to the pelvic area may help to relax the muscles in the uterus, whilst a warm bath or shower can help relax your whole body.
The severity of your period pain isn't just down to chance. Lifestyle factors like weight and smoking also play a role. "It is important for those who smoke to try to stop, as this is thought to increase the likelihood of experiencing period pain," says Mackay. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health and there's plenty of support available from your pharmacist to help you stop for good.
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Whilst it might be the last thing you want to do when you're on your period, regular exercise really does help period pain. "Exercise, massage and relaxation techniques like yoga and Pilates can also be beneficial," says Mackay.
Getting the blood pumping makes the body release 'happy hormones', endorphins, which reduce pain. You could try going on a light walk, swimming or following a yoga tutorial at home.
In general, keeping fit and maintaining a healthy weight could help to improve your period pain. Studies have shown that those who are underweight or overweight are more likely to experience menstrual cramps.
But you don't necessarily need to go and get a massage when you're on your period (although it might be a nice treat). Try gently massaging your lower abdomen, below your belly button, in circular motions.
Your doctor may also prescribe stronger painkillers like codeine in some case if ordinary ones aren't doing the trick.
An anti-inflammatory painkiller called naproxen also offers effective relief against period pain. You can book a consultation with your pharmacist to see if it will be suitable for you. They can offer you short private (paid for) courses of tablets to manage cramps.
Just because periods cause period pain doesn't mean that you have to put up with it. Research suggests that severe and disruptive menstrual cramps may affect up to 20% of women. In some cases, these can be down to an underlying problem such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
"Women should see their healthcare professional if they are experiencing period pain that is worse or different than normal and if it is preventing them from continuing with their day-to-day lives," says Mackay.
If you track your periods, make sure to include information about period pain as well so that you can notice any changes. "It is helpful for women to track their periods as much as possible so that they can notice any changes and be able to articulate them fully to their healthcare professional to aid quicker diagnosis," she explains.
Your doctor may be able to offer you stronger painkillers or contraception to help regulate and reduce menstrual symptoms. If they suspect that there could be an underlying cause for your pain, you can be referred to see a gynaecologist who can investigate further.