Cramps are the telltale sign that your period is either on its way or here. No matter their intensity, menstrual cramps are nearly always uncomfortable and for some, can be debilitating. The sensation of painful menstrual cramps (or dysmenorrhea) usually occurs before your cycle begins or during the first few days. During your period, your uterus sheds its inner lining by contracting.
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that help trigger these contractions, resulting in discomfort and leaving your uterus in an inflamed state. Although it may be impossible to completely avoid cramps while having a period, we’ve rounded up some doctor-recommended tips to help ease the pain and make that time of the month a little bit easier.
1. Take a pain reliever to calm inflammation
In terms of accessible medication, over-the-counter NSAIDs are the best for relieving cramps, according to board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, Jovana Lekovich. NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, "would be anything ibuprofen- or naproxen-based. That would include Aleve, Motrin, or Advil.”
The Cleveland Clinic explains that NSAIDs work by blocking the production of body chemicals that cause inflammation. When taking these meds, Lekovich feels the key is to be proactive: “Usually cramping starts a day or two before you get your period. Taking [them] then could potentially counteract the production of prostaglandins and therefore, the extent of the discomfort.”
2. Talk to your doctor about going on birth control
Unless you are actively trying to get pregnant and NSAIDs don’t work for you, you might want to consider taking birth control pills. According to the Mayo Clinic, birth control contains hormones that prevent ovulation which can help lighten the flow of your period and the severity of cramps. Clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University Medical School, Mary Jane Minkin tells Allure, “The reason [those taking birth control] tend to have fewer cramps is birth control pills work by blocking ovulation. They prevent ovaries from making eggs, and we think that women make more of these prostaglandins when they ovulate.”
Minkin adds, “And of course, taking the pill tends to make [your cycle] more regular, if you're somebody who has had some irregularity. So for example, some women who have really horrible cramps do find that by taking the birth control pills and having a very regular cycle, they can start taking their Aleve or their Motrin the day before their period and really try to prevent or minimize the cramps.” If this seems like an option for you, we suggest talking to your gyno to figure out the best form of birth control for you.
3. Stay active during your cycle
Although it may be the last thing you want to do while on your period, exercise is great for easing cramps. Lekovich explained that when the uterus contracts, uterine blood vessels become constricted which can prevent blood flow to the uterus and is one of the main factors contributing to pain. While the pain may make you want to lie down in the fetal position, Chicago-based board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist Jessica Shepherd says exercise can help solve that very problem. “I would say definitely cardiovascular exercises help. So running, walking, elliptical, cycling — anything that’s going to improve blood flow to the uterus is going to be very helpful.” If you’re more of a yogi, Shepherd says that helps, too. She adds, “Exercises like yoga and pilates which help with stretching and increasing flexibility, those are good for pelvic relaxation as well.”
4. Use external heat on your lower abdominal area
Adding heat to your lower abdominal area can work wonders in helping alleviate some of those cramps. “I would probably say that out of topical options, heating pads would be the best. Heating pads and hot water bottles are amazing. They really do help the uterine muscle relax and that’s really helpful during the menstrual cycle,” Shepherd says. If you don’t own a heating pad or a hot water bottle, try adding heat to that area in other ways like taking a long hot shower, drinking hot tea, or wetting a hot rag and placing it on your lower abdomen.
5. If nothing works, talk to your gyno
It’s important to know your body and recognize when it’s sending you messages. If none of the above tips work and you still continue to experience unbearable pain, Minkin suggests you go see your doctor. “The classic condition that tends to give you bad pain that isn't relieved by these things is endometriosis," she explains. "[Getting checked out] is very important, because we have a lot of medications that are available now and lots that are coming on to the market, which are really good for treating endometriosis.” Seeing your doctor can be the first step in determining any outside causes of cramps and can further help evaluate the best solution for you.
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