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    Everything You Need to Know About Period Cramps

    Updated 14 March 2022 |
    Published 07 December 2021
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Amanda Kallen, Associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive endocrinology, Yale University School of Medicine, Connecticut, US
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    We know they’re not much fun, but let’s dive into what causes menstrual cramps to learn how best to manage them.

    Period cramps, known in the medical world as “dysmenorrhea,” are a very common and normal part of the monthly cycle. Though the experience has been around for as long as humans have, the word “dysmenorrhea” was first used in 1810, created using New Latin word parts that basically mean “difficult menstrual flow.” It’s estimated more than half of us experience period pain for one or two days each month.

    It’s important to understand that menstrual pain exists on a scale and varies significantly from person to person. Some don’t experience any period pain at all, for others it’s light cramping, but for around 10 percent it’s so severe that it gets in the way of everyday life. 

    Let’s dive into what causes period cramps and how best to relieve them. 

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    What causes period cramps? And why am I cramping so badly?

    Menstrual cramps usually feel like a throbbing, cramping, or dull ache in the lower abdomen and back. The pain often comes on just before your period starts and can last throughout. For some, symptoms can also include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. So what causes these cramps in the first place? 

    Well, it’s pretty simple, really. Dysmenorrhea describes the pain often associated with menstruation, and there are two types: primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea. 

    Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by hormone-like chemicals produced in your uterus called “prostaglandins.” They help it to contract in order to shed the lining (AKA your period). 

    You may also experience secondary dysmenorrhea. However, this pain is caused by other gynecologic conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, or fibroids. Of these, the most common is endometriosis — a painful condition where tissue similar to uterine lining grows in the tubes and ovaries. This tissue also breaks down and bleeds as hormones change, but it can sometimes become trapped, and, in some cases, painful scar tissue can form. 

    Secondary dysmenorrhea typically lasts longer than regular menstrual cramps. Pain can begin a few days before your period starts, and it sometimes intensifies over time. 

    If you’re concerned about your period pain, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor or health care professional. If necessary, they can run some tests that might put your mind at ease or recommend treatment that could help.