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- Menstrual cramps definition and facts
- What are menstrual cramps? What is premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?
- What are the symptoms of menstrual cramps?
- How long do menstrual cramps last? Why do they cause severe pain?
- What causes menstrual cramps?
- What other facters cause severe pain with menstural cramps?
- How common are menstrual cramps?
- How are menstrual cramps diagnosed?
- What are the common treatments for menstrural cramps?
- What pain relief treatments are used for severe menstrual cramps?
- Can surgery cure menstrual cramps?
- What are the treatments for secondary dysmenorrhea (painful periods)?
- What is the long-term outlook (prognosis) for menstrual cramps?
Menstrual cramps definition and facts
- Menstrual cramps are periodic abdominal and pelvic pains experienced by women.
- More than half of all menstruating women have cramps.
- The cramps are severe in at least one in four of these women.
- Medically, menstrual cramps are called dysmenorrhea.
- Primary dysmenorrhea is common menstrual cramps without an identifiable cause.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea results from an underlying abnormality that usually involves the woman's reproductive system.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to treat cramps.
- Physical exercise can help alleviate menstrual cramps.
- Menstrual cramps tend to improve with age.
What are menstrual cramps? What is premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?
Menstrual cramps are pains in the abdomen and pelvic areas that can be experienced by a woman because of menstrual period. Menstrual cramps are not the same as the discomfort felt during premenstrual syndrome (PMS), although the symptoms of both disorders can sometimes be experienced as a continuous process. Many women suffer from both PMS and menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps can range from mild to quite severe. Mild menstrual cramps may be barely noticeable and of short duration. They are sometimes felt as just a sense of heaviness in the abdomen. Severe menstrual cramps can be so painful that they interfere with a woman's normal activities for several days.
What are the symptoms of menstrual cramps?
- Menstrual cramps usually begin before the onset of menstrual period, peak within 24 hours after the onset of the bleeding, and subside again after a day or two.
- Menstrual cramps are pains that begin in the lower abdomen and pelvis. The discomfort can extend to the lower back or legs.
- Menstrual cramps can be a quite painful or simply a dull ache.
- The pain can be periodic or continuous.
- Pain may be felt in the inner thighs, or hips.
Menstrual cramps may be accompanied by a headache and/or nausea, which can lead, although infrequently, to vomiting. Menstrual cramps can also be accompanied by either constipation or diarrhea, because the prostaglandins, which cause smooth muscles to contract also affect the intestinal tract. Some women experience an urge to urinate more frequently.
How long do menstrual cramps last? Why do they cause severe pain?
Menstrual cramps are caused by the uterine contractions that occur in response to prostaglandins and other chemicals. The cramping sensation is intensified when clots or pieces of bloody tissue from the lining of the uterus pass through the cervix, especially if a woman's cervical canal is narrow.
The difference between menstrual cramps that are more painful and those that are less painful may be related to a woman's prostaglandin levels. Women with menstrual cramps have elevated levels of prostaglandins in the endometrium (uterine lining) when compared with women who do not experience cramps. Menstrual cramps are very similar to those a pregnant woman experiences when she is given prostaglandins as medication to induce labor.
Usually, the strength of menstrual cramps are not measured. Researchers have demonstrated that menstrual cramps can be scientifically documented by measuring the pressure within the uterus, as well as the number and frequency of uterine contractions. During a normal menstrual period, the average woman has contractions of a low pressure (50-80 mm Hg), which last 15-30 seconds at a frequency of 1-4 contractions every 10 minutes. When a woman with dysmenorrhea has menstrual cramps, her contractions are usually of a higher pressure (they may exceed 400 mm Hg), last longer than 90 seconds, and often occur less than 15 seconds apart.
What causes menstrual cramps?
Each month, the inner lining of the uterus (the endometrium) normally builds up in preparation for a possible pregnancy. After ovulation, if the egg is not fertilized by a sperm, no pregnancy will result and the current lining of the uterus is no longer needed. The woman's estrogen and progesterone hormone levels decline, and the lining of the uterus becomes swollen and is eventually shed as the menstrual flow. It is replaced by a new growth of lining during the next monthly cycle.
When the uterine lining begins to break down, molecular compounds called prostaglandins are released. These compounds cause the muscles of the uterus to contract. When the uterine muscles contract, they constrict the blood supply (vasoconstriction) to the endometrium. This contraction blocks the delivery of oxygen to the tissue of the endometrium, which in turn, breaks down and dies. After the death of this tissue, the uterine contractions squeeze the old endometrial tissue through the cervix and out of the body by way of the vagina. Other substances known as leukotrienes, which are chemicals that play a role in the inflammatory response, are also elevated at this time and may be related to the development of menstrual cramps.
What other facters cause severe pain with menstural cramps?
- An unusually narrow cervical canal tends to increase menstrual cramps.
- Another anatomical factor that may contribute to menstrual cramps is a retroverted uterus (the uterus tilts backward instead of forward).
- Lack of exercise is now recognized to contribute to painful menstrual cramps, because exercise releases endorphins that relieve pain.
- It has long been thought that psychological factors also play a role. For example, it is widely accepted that emotional stress can increase the discomfort of menstrual cramps.
- Adenomyosis and endometriosis can increase the severity of menstrual cramps
- Having uterine fibroids can worsen menstrual cramping
Quick GuidePremenstrual Syndrome (PMS): Track and Prevent Symptoms
How common are menstrual cramps?
Menstrual cramps of some degree affect an estimated 84% of women, and among these, up to 25% would describe their menstrual cramps as severe. Surveys of adolescent girls show that over 90% report having menstrual cramps.
How are menstrual cramps diagnosed?
The diagnosis of menstrual cramps is usually made by the woman herself and reflects her individual perception of pain. Once a woman has experienced menstrual cramps, usually with the adolescent onset of her monthly menstrual flow (menses), she becomes well aware of the typical symptoms. If there are other medical conditions contributing to menstrual cramps (secondary dysmenorrhea), the doctor may suggest diagnostic testing including imaging studies.
What are the common treatments for menstrural cramps?
Every woman needs to find a treatment that works for her. There are a number of possible remedies for menstrual cramps.
Current recommendations include not only adequate rest and sleep, but also regular exercise (especially walking). Some women find that abdominal massage, yoga, or orgasmic sexual activity may bring relief. A heating pad applied to the abdominal area may relieve the pain and congestion.
A number of nonprescription (over-the-counter) agents can help control the pain as well as actually prevent the menstrual cramps altogether. For mild cramps, aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or acetaminophen plus a diuretic (Diurex MPR, FEM-1, Midol, Pamprin, Premsyn, and others) may be sufficient. However, aspirin has limited effect in curbing the production of prostaglandin, and it is only useful for less painful cramps.
The main agents for treating moderate menstrual cramps are the nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which lower the production of prostaglandin and lessen its effect. The NSAIDs that do not require a prescription are:
- ibuprofen (Advil, Midol IB, Motrin, Nuprin, and others);
- naproxen sodium (Aleve, Anaprox); and
- ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis KT).
A woman should start taking one of these medications before her pain becomes difficult to control. This might mean starting medication 1 to 2 days before her anticipated period is due, and then continuing taking the medication for the first one to two days of her period. The best results are obtained by taking one of the NSAIDs on a scheduled basis and not waiting for the pain to begin.
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What pain relief treatments are used for severe menstrual cramps?
If a woman's menstrual cramps are too severe to be managed by these strategies, her doctor might prescribe low doses of birth control pills (oral contraceptives) containing estrogen and progestin in a regular or extended cycle. This type of approach can prevent ovulation (the monthly release of an egg) and reduce the production of prostaglandins, which in turn, reduces the severity of cramping.
Use of an IUD that releases small amounts of the progestin levonorgestrel directly into the uterine cavity, has been associated with a 50 percent reduction in the prevalence of menstrual cramps. In contrast, IUDs that do not contain hormones, such as those containing copper, may worsen menstrual cramps.
Can surgery cure menstrual cramps?
In the past, many women with menstrual cramps had an operation known as a D & C (dilation and curettage) to remove some of the lining of the uterus. This procedure is also sometimes used as a diagnostic measure to detect cancer or precancerous conditions of the uterine lining. Some women even resorted to the ultimate solution to menstrual problems by having a hysterectomy, a surgical procedure in which the entire uterus is removed.
Today, when a woman has abnormally heavy and painful uterine bleeding, her doctor may recommend endometrial ablation, a procedure in which the lining of the uterus is destroyed by various devices.
What are the treatments for secondary dysmenorrhea (painful periods)?
The treatment of secondary dysmenorrhea depends on its cause. There are a number of underlying conditions which can contribute to the pain including:
- Endometriosis (cells from the uterine lining are located in other areas of the body outside of the uterus)
- Uterine fibroids (non-cancerous uterine growths that respond to estrogen levels)
- Adenomyosis (a benign condition in which the cells of the inner uterine lining invade its muscular wall, the myometrium)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Adhesions (abnormal fibrous attachments between organs)
- Use of a copper intrauterine device (IUD) for contraception.
All of these conditions should be first diagnosed by a physician who will then recommend the optimal treatment.
If a woman begins to experience changes in her menstrual cramps, such as in their severity, timing, or location, she should consult her physician, especially if the changes are of sudden onset.
What is the long-term outlook (prognosis) for menstrual cramps?
In general, a woman's menstrual cramps do not worsen during her lifetime. In fact, the menstrual cramps of primary dysmenorrhea usually diminish with age and after pregnancy.
When there is secondary dysmenorrhea with an underlying condition contributing to the pain, the prognosis depends on the successful treatment of that underlying condition.
As women have learned more about their bodies and how to maintain them in optimal health, menstrual cramps have become less debilitating, and more often, merely a minor monthly inconvenience.
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Calis, KA, PharD, et al. Menstrual Disorders. Dysmenorrhea. Updated: Oct 22, 2018..
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Dilation and CurettageDilation and curettage (D and C or D & C), is a surgery procedure in which the cervix is expanded (dilated) enough to permit the cervical canal and uterine lining to be scraped with a spoon-shaped instrument call a curette (curettage). Recovery time for D and C is about 2 weeks. Usually, a D & C is performed to determine the cause of abnormal vaginal bleeding. Examples of other reasons include endometiral biopsy and to remove tissue after a misscariage or abortion.
Endometrial AblationEndometrial ablation is a surgical procedure performed to treat abnormal uterine bleeding. Endometrial ablation destroys the lining of the tissues of the uterus. There are several procedures used with endometrial ablation including laser beam, electricity ,freezing, heating, or microwave energy Complications may arise during or after the procedure.
Endometriosis implants are most commonly found on the ovaries, the Fallopian tubes, outer surfaces of the uterus or intestines, and on the surface lining of the pelvic cavity. They also can be found in the vagina, cervix, and bladder. Endometriosis may not produce any symptoms, but when it does the most common symptom is pelvic pain that worsens just prior to menstruation and improves at the end of the menstrual period. Other symptoms of endometriosis include pain during sex, pain with pelvic examinations, cramping or pain during bowel movements or urination, and infertility.
Treatment of endometriosis can be with medication or surgery.
Hormonal Methods of Birth ControlThere are several different hormonal methods of birth control. The hormones can be estrogen and/or progesterone. The hormones can be taken by mouth, implanted into body tissue, absorbed from a patch on the skin, injected under the skin, or placed in the vagina. Common types of hormonal birth control include: "The Pill" (oral contraceptives), injection (Depo-Provera, Lunelle), the patch (Ortho-Evra), and the vaginal ring (Nuvaring).
An IUD (intrauterine device) is a birth control method designed for a woman. The IUD is a small "T" made of molded polyethylene plastic coated with barium so that, if need be, it can be seen on X-ray.
There are two types of IUDs 1) Intrauterine contraceptive device (IUCD) including the ParaGard, Copper 7, and Mini-7; and 2) Intrauterine system (IUS) including Progestasert and Mirena.
Side effects of the IUD include spotting, infection, infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and heavy menstrual bleeding. Risks and complications of the IUD are miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, and increased menstrual bleeding.
MenstruationMenstruation (menstrual cycle) is also referred to as a "period." When a woman menstruates, the lining of the uterus is shed. This shedding of the uterine linking is the menstrual blood flow. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days. There can be problems with a woman's period, including heavy bleeding, pain, or skipped periods. Causes of these problems may be amenorrhea (lack fo a period), menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea), or abnormal vaginal or uterine bleeding. There are a variety of situations in which a girl or woman should see a doctor about her menstrual cycle.
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PMS vs. Pregnancy Differences and Similarities
Many women have difficulty figuring out if they are pregnant, have PMS, or are about to start their period. The most common signs and symptoms of early pregnancy, PMS, and the start of your period include mood swings, back pain, increased urination, and tender breasts. These three conditions also share other similar signs and symptoms, but there are unique differences between each. Moreover, there are symptoms that only occur if you are pregnant.
Early pregnancy symptoms, PMS, and the start of the menstrual period all have common signs and symptoms like mood swings, back pain, and breast pain. Symptoms and signs between the three conditions that may seem similar, but are slightly different include:
- Pelvic or abdominal cramping before or during your menstrual period is normal; however, the cramping of early pregnancy is mild.
- If you are pregnant, nausea and vomiting, or morning sickness, is common. They are not common symptoms of PMS.
- Fatigue is common in both, but PMS usually goes away once your period begins.
- Food cravings or aversions to certain foods are common in both pregnancy and PMS, but if you are pregnant, the cravings or aversions to foods are more specific and intense.
- You may have spotting or bleeding if you are pregnant or suffering from PMS. When the embryo inserts itself into the uterus (implantation bleeding), you may mistake it as your menstrual period. However, implantation bleeding is much lighter (not enough to soak a pad or tampon) than the heaving bleeding experienced at the beginning of your period.
Signs and symptoms that you may have only if you are pregnant include, implantation cramping and bleeding, a white, milky vaginal discharge, and your areolas or nipples darken.
The only way to find out if you are pregnant is with a pregnancy test. Home pregnancy test kits are available without a prescription at pharmacies and most grocery stores. Contact a doctor or other health care professional if you think you may be pregnant.
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Normal vaginal bleeding (menorrhea) occurs through the process of menstruation. Abnormal vaginal bleeding in women who are ovulating regularly most commonly involves excessive, frequent, irregular, or decreased bleeding.
Causes of abnormal may arise from a variety of conditions that may include, uterine fibroids, IUDs, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, lupus, STDs, pelvic inflammatory disease, emotional stress, anorexia nervosa, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), cancers, early pregnancy.
The treatment for abnormal or irregular vaginal bleeding depends upon the cause.
Vaginal Pain (Vulvodynia)
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