Center for Young Women's Health

Menstrual Cramps

 

Remember

  • It's normal to have mild cramps during your period.
  • Menstrual cramps often start 1-2 days before your period begins.
  • If your cramps don't get better with over-the-counter medicine, you should see your health care provider.
Getting Treatment:
The Gynecology Program and Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital offer special services in the diagnosis and treatment of menstrual cramps.

Menstrual periods can be light and easy for some teens and young women, but for others, they can be heavy and/or accompanied by painful cramps. Cramps can be a big reason why girls are absent from school, why they miss sport practices, and why they may avoid social events with their friends.

 

What is Dysmenorrhea?

Dysmenorrhea (pronounced: dis-men-o-ree-a) is a medical term that means “difficult or painful periods.” There are two types of dysmenorrhea, primary and secondary.

 

Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common kind of dysmenorrhea. Cramps (pain in the lower belly area and/or lower back) can start 1-2 days before your period comes and can last 2-4 days.

 

Secondary dysmenorrhea is when cramps and, for some, lower back pain are a result of a medical problem such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.

 

What causes menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps are caused by uterine contractions (when your uterus tightens and relaxes allowing blood to leave your uterus). The lining of your uterus releases special chemicals called "prostaglandins." These substances can increase the intensity of the contractions, especially if the levels rise. High levels of prostaglandins may also cause nausea and lightheadedness.

 

*Some or all of these problems may start a day or two before your period and can last for part or all of your period. These signs could also be caused by other medical conditions and therefore it is important to discuss your symptoms to your health care provider.

 

Is it normal to have some mild cramps during your period?

Yes, it's normal to have mild cramps during your period because of uterine contractions. The uterus is a muscle that tightens and relaxes which can cause jabbing or cramp-like pain. However, if the discomfort is not relieved with over-the-counter medications and causes you to miss school or other daily activities, it could mean that there is another reason for your symptoms.

 

When you first get your period, it's common for it to be irregular, and you may not ovulate for a few months, or even for a few years. So you may not have menstrual cramps when you first begin your period. After one, two, or three years, when your hormonal system is more mature, you might have more severe menstrual cramps.

 

If your cramps are severe and interfere with your daily activities, don’t ignore what your body is telling you. Make an appointment with your health care provider.

 

What other symptoms do girls have during their periods?

In addition to cramping during their periods, some girls may have other symptoms.

 

Symptoms may be mild to moderate and can include:

Are menstrual cramps the same as PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome)?

Menstrual cramps are not the same as PMS. Symptoms of PMS such as bloating, weight gain, and moodiness happen before a woman's period begins, and get a lot better when her period starts. On the other hand, with dysmenorrhea, cramps usually get worse the first day or two of a woman’s period and have a different cause and treatment.

 

What medications can I take for my menstrual cramps?

If you are having menstrual cramps, talk with your parents or health care provider about your options. If your menstrual cramps are painful, you may think about taking some type of the over-the-counter medicine for one to two days. These medicines are "anti-prostaglandins." They help relieve the discomfort, make your flow lighter, and cause your uterus to cramp less. Look for over-the-counter medications that contain ibuprofen or naproxen sodium. Take this medicine when you first start to feel uncomfortable, and continue taking it every 4-6 hours or as recommended by your health care provider. Since this kind of medicine can upset your stomach, you should take it with food. Make sure you read the label to see how much and how often you should take the medication. You should not take these products if you are allergic to aspirin-like medicine or have stomach problems. It's important not to take more medicine than is recommended or prescribed.

 

Is there anything else I can do to help my menstrual cramps?

Natural remedies such as a microwavable warm pack or a heating pad placed on your abdomen (lower belly) may help. Soaking in a warm bath may also relieve uncomfortable cramps. Some teens find that increasing their physical activity helps; others find that resting quietly for short periods of time helps.

 

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that is sometimes recommended to treat dysmenorrhea. You should also eat healthy foods, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of rest. You can try different treatments to find out what works best for you.

 

What if nothing helps my menstrual cramps?

If your menstrual cramps are not relieved by over-the-counter medicine, make an appointment to see your health care provider. Use a period and symptom tracker for 2-3 months and then bring it to your next medical appointment. A record of your symptoms can help your healthcare provider figure out the best treatment choices for you.

 

My Monthly Period & Symptom Tracker

My Monthly Period & Symptom Tracker is an easy way to keep track of your menstrual flow, and it’s also a way to keep track of cramps, and/or PMS and period symptoms (if you have them) each month.

Sample Monthly Period & Symptom Tracker

 

My Monthly Period & Symptom Tracker

 

Is it okay to exercise when I have my period?

Exercising is a good way to stay fit and healthy. Some girls like to exercise when they have their period because it helps lessen their cramps. Other girls are uncomfortable exercising when they have their period. You should find what works best for you. Talk to your coach or gym teacher if exercising is uncomfortable during your period.

 

Remember, if cramps or other symptoms cause you to miss school or other activities and over-the-counter medicine and other comfort measures don’t help, you should make an appointment with your health care provider.

 

Written and reviewed by the CYWH Staff at Boston Children's Hospital

 

Updated: 3/5/2014

 

Related Guides:

Menstrual Periods

When you reach puberty and you are becoming a woman, your ovaries make hormones (especially estrogen) that cause breast development and menstrual periods...

 

Painful Periods (Dysmenorrhea)

Dysmenorrhea is a medical term that means "difficult or painful periods". There are two types of dysmenorrhea; primary and secondary...

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