What is a menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is cyclic changes that occur in a woman’s body every month. During the menstrual cycle, the levels of reproductive hormones change, the egg is released from the ovary, and the uterus is prepared for pregnancy.
The typical female menstrual cycle is 28-30 days. Some women may have a shorter cycle of around 20 days or a longer cycle of around 35 days. The first day of the menstrual cycle is when a woman starts bleeding. Periods usually last for three to seven days in most women. Ovulation (release of the egg from the ovary) occurs between 11-15 days of the menstrual cycle but most commonly on the 14th day. During ovulation, usually, only a single egg is released from the ovary.
When the sperm meets the egg (fertilization), pregnancy occurs. If fertilization does not occur, the uterine lining sheds and presents with bleeding, marking the onset of periods.
About period cramps
- Primary dysmenorrhea: This begins right after a woman starts having her menstrual periods. For some women, period pain and cramps reduce as they get older or after childbirth, whereas for others, the intensity of the pain remains the same. Period cramps are the most intense in the first one to three days of the periods.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea: This is usually a result of reproductive system disorders. Pain and cramps are worse compared with those in primary dysmenorrhea, and they worsen with time. Dysmenorrhea may begin a few days before a period starts and can get worse or may not go away after it ends. Some of the conditions that can cause secondary dysmenorrhea are endometriosis, adenomyosis, or uterine fibroids. Secondary dysmenorrhea can be associated with heavy bleeding and clots. If period pains and cramps are severe, worsen, and cause significant discomfort, it is advised to consult with a doctor.
Treatment of period cramps
Treatment for period cramps includes medical treatment, lifestyle changes, and home remedies.
- Pain relief medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, etc. can help reduce the pain of cramps. Prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be advised for women with severe pain.
- Oral contraceptive pills (birth control pills): Oral contraceptives contain hormones that prevent ovulation and reduce period cramps. These hormones may also be administered in other forms such as injection, skin patch, or intrauterine device (IUD).
- Surgery: Surgery may be required to treat uterine fibroids or endometriosis and reduce associated symptoms.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Home remedies include:
- Anti-inflammatory foods: Eating foods that have anti-inflammatory properties can reduce menstrual pain. These foods include blueberries, squash, cherries, capsicum, tomatoes, cold-water fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, beans, green leafy vegetables, and almonds. It's advised to incorporate these foods in the diet throughout the year, instead of just during the periods. Sugary foods, fried and fatty foods, white bread or pasta, alcohol, smoking, caffeine, and tobacco can increase cramps.
- Herbs: Chamomile tea, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric root, fenugreek, and dill are some herbs that have anti-inflammatory effects and can reduce cramps. Sipping two cups of chamomile tea per day, starting a week before the period begins, can reduce cramps. You may benefit more if you drink it every month.
- Nutritional supplements: Taking fish oil, vitamin B1, vitamin B, and calcium supplements all year round can significantly reduce period pain and improve overall body health.
- Heat therapy: Applying a heating pad, hot water bottle, hot towel, and heat wrap over the abdomen and back helps the muscles around the uterus to relax and relieve menstrual cramps. The temperature should ideally be 104°F. Taking a hot bath with bubbles and essential oils or hot showers can also help.
- Exercise: Exercising regularly can help reduce menstrual cramps and overall health. Exercise could include sports, walking, running, swimming, dance, Pilates, or yoga. Women may exercise during their period as well based on an individual comfort level.
- Massage: Massaging the abdomen with essential oils for five minutes a day to however long one is comfortable for can relieve menstrual cramps. Massaging improves blood flow and relaxes the muscles.
- Acupuncture and acupressure: Acupressure and acupuncture are performed by a professional to reduce menstrual cramps by stimulating specific trigger points. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy uses mild electric currents to stimulate your nerves to relieve pain.
- Good sleep: Sleep quality can affect menstrual symptoms. Insomnia increases the risk of dysmenorrhea. Practicing good sleep by getting adequate rest and sleep of six to eight hours a day can reduce menstruation pain and cramps.
- Sexual activity: Intercourse during periods is known to reduce cramps. However, condoms must be used because there is a high risk of infection in both partners.
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