Your Guide to Menstrual Cramps

Medically Reviewed By Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
Was this helpful?
2

Menstrual cramps are throbbing abdominal pains you experience before and during your period. They can range from mild to severe. Other associated symptoms include nausea, upset stomach, and loose stools.

Most cases of menstrual cramps respond to home remedies. These remedies include warm baths, aromatherapy, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

This article explains menstrual cramps in further detail. It also goes over their symptoms, causes, and remedies.

What are menstrual cramps?

woman holding stomach
1224114656 Jose Here’s/EyeEm/Getty Images

Menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, are throbbing abdominal pains you experience before and during your period. They are a typical part of the menstrual cycle.

Many girls experience menstrual cramps for the first time 1 or 2 years after their first period. The first period usually occurs at around 12 years old.

Sex and gender terms

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “female” and “women” when discussing people assigned female at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials.

When do they start?

Menstrual cramps may start 1­–3 days before your period, and peak a day after your period begins.

Periods usually occur every 28 days between puberty and menopause, except during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps generally cause throbbing, aching pain in the lower abdomen. The pain can be dull or intense. 

Other related symptoms include:

  • pain that radiates down your lower back and thighs
  • achy pain in your belly 
  • loose stools and upset stomach
  • nausea and vomiting 
  • headache and dizziness 

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you have severe or persistent symptoms of menstrual cramps.

How long do they last?

Menstrual cramps may last for 1­–3 days before subsiding. 

When should you contact a doctor?

Consult your doctor if your menstrual cramps are severe or last more than 3 days.

What causes menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps result when your uterus contracts to shed its lining. Hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins facilitate this contraction. If your prostaglandin levels are too high, you may experience severe menstrual cramps. Apart from that, many medical conditions can also trigger menstrual cramps. They include:

  • Endometriosis: This is when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. It is a common gynecological condition. 
  • Uterine fibroids: These are benign growths that form in the uterus. They usually develop in women of childbearing age.
  • Adenomyosis: This is when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows into the muscle of the uterus. It can cause frequent pain and heavy bleeding.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease: This is an infection of the female reproductive system, including the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Common symptoms include frequent urination, pain, and vomiting.
  • Cervical stenosis: This is when the passageway through your cervix narrows. It can result from degenerative changes or injury.

Read about endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and more about women’s health here.

What are the risk factors for menstrual cramps? 

Some factors can put you at a higher risk of menstrual cramps. They include:

  • being under 30 years old
  • experiencing heavy bleeding during periods 
  • starting puberty early, at, or before 11 years old
  • living with irregular menstrual bleeding
  • having a family history of menstrual cramps
  • smoking 

How can you relieve menstrual cramps? 

Many cases of menstrual cramps respond to home remedies.

Try to apply these remedies as soon as cramping starts:

  • Take OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
  • Get sufficient rest.
  • Apply heat compresses to the lower back.
  • Get a lower back or abdominal massage.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Practice yoga.

Food for menstrual cramps

Some foods may also relieve menstrual cramps. They include: 

  • ginger  
  • cinnamon
  • fennel seeds
  • dill

Always remember to get your doctor’s advice before making any dietary changes.

Liquids for menstrual cramps 

The following liquids have the potential to reduce menstrual cramps:

  • water
  • chamomile tea
  • ginger tea
  • green smoothies 
  • peppermint tea

What to avoid with menstrual cramps

Certain foods and certain practices can increase your risk of menstrual cramps. Avoiding them may help. 

They include:

  • fatty foods
  • caffeine and carbonated beverages
  • salt
  • alcohol
  • smoking

Alternative medicine

Some people may also find aromatherapy helpful. 

Aromatherapy is a natural treatment method that uses essential oils to promote health. These essential oils include lavender, lemon, and bergamot. A 2018 research review found that aromatherapy can be effective in relieving menstrual pain

Other alternative treatment methods include acupuncture, acupressure, nerve stimulation, and physical therapy. Talk with your doctor if your symptoms persist after these remedies.

Summary

Menstrual cramps are throbbing abdominal pains you experience before and during your period. They can be mild, moderate, or severe. In some cases, other symptoms may also appear. They can include nausea, vomiting, loose stools, and upset stomach.

Menstrual cramps result when your uterus contracts to shed its lining. This contraction is the work of hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins. If your prostaglandin levels are too high, you may experience severe menstrual cramps.

Additionally, many medical conditions can trigger menstrual cramps. They include endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and adenomyosis. A lot of cases of menstrual cramps respond to home remedies. These remedies include warm baths, dietary supplements, and OTC pain relievers.

Get medical treatment if your symptoms do not improve.

Was this helpful?
2
Medical Reviewer: Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 8
View All Women's Health Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Dysmenorrhea. (2019). https://familydoctor.org/condition/dysmenorrhea/
  2. Dysmenorrhea: Painful periods. (2022). https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/dysmenorrhea-painful-periods
  3. Lee, M. S., et al. (2018). Aromatherapy for managing pain in primary dysmenorrhea: A systematic review of randomized placebo-controlled trials. https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6262530/
  4. Period pain. (2019). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/period-pain/
  5. Period pain: Overview. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279324/
  6. Periods: Overview. (2019). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/