When I was 12 years old, in the middle of class, I suddenly felt one of the most immense pains I had ever felt. It felt like my insides were trying to tear themselves apart. Like something major was going to rupture any moment (or already had). All-in-all, it wasn’t great.
I doubled over in tears and tried to power through my work regardless (because I’m the kind of goody-two-shoes who puts achievement in the eyes of others over my own personal safety, apparently, even when I think I’m about to die) but in the end, it became too much. I put my hand up and called the teacher over.
“Miss,” I had spoken through gritted teeth, but with a timid tone, “I think I need to go to the nurse”.
Shocked at the interruption to her class she asked me why and I described my symptoms between my increasingly panted breaths.
“I see,” she had spoken, looking a tad concerned, “And where did you say this pain was coming from again?”
I pointed at my lower abdomen. At which point she began to laugh merrily, all worry gone.
“Oh, my dear girl. You’re not in any real pain. Those are just cramps. You’ll be fine”.
At which point she went back to teaching and left me alone and doubled over at my desk trying to reconcile the fact that these were, in fact, cramps (having thankfully received some period info from my mother) and figuring out how the hell I was going to get from one breath to the next bearing them, let alone the rest of my menstruating life.
Yeah. That wasn’t a fun day.
What Are Cramps?
Although young Emmeline would have never thought it on that day, looking back on my first experience with cramps I was semi-fortunate.
My mother had suffered from horrendous cramps when young too, so she had been sure to educate me about periods, cramps, and what to expect. Of course, theory and practice are often very different, but I digress. Some people lack that knowledge, for one reason or another, or have never really had a perceived need to know it – men, for example.
But, whether you get cramps or not, it is vital to know about them and to have a general idea of just what is happening when the body decides to assault its recipient monthly.
Cramps (also known as ‘period pain’) are painful muscle cramps, typically felt in the stomach during each monthly period. These cramps can also sometimes extend to back and thighs for added ‘fun’ and can impact different people to different degrees.
Why Do We Get Cramps?
Cramps are caused when the muscular wall of the womb tightens and contracts during a person’s period to help the womb lining shed away and make room for the next time it preps to get preggers.
Although the womb is just doing its job here, each contraction compresses the blood vessels in the woman, cutting off a person’s blood (and oxygen supply). This cut off of oxygen then releases chemicals which triggers the pain associated with cramps.
In a fun little cycle, the release of these pain triggering chemicals also produces an additional chemical called prostaglandins which then makes the womb contract more causing even more pain. Isn’t the body magical?
The variation of pain felt by different people is theorized to be linked in variations between the build-up of prostaglandins that already exist in the body, but no one is 100% sure.
Can Anything Else Affect Cramps?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: There are many things that can also impact cramps and perhaps even cause them when not going through a period.
Endometriosis is one such condition, which causes the cells that normally line the womb to grow in other places, creating intense pain when they try to shed. Non-cancerous tumors such as fibroids can enhance period pain, and pelvic inflammatory disease and adenomyosis can also be a factor.
Intrauterine devices can also sometimes cause increased period pain, sometimes only for a few months after insertion or sometimes permanently. I am one of the people who have found my cramps increase with the IUD…one more reason I’m considering getting it removed (buuut, that’s a whole other article).
If you feel like your period pain is irregular please do contact a medical professional and see if you’ve got any underlying issues. Despite what my teacher might have thought, there’s no reason to suffer in silence.
Alleviating Period Pain
Period pain is a part of the natural cycle of menstruating, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean that you must endure it.
Thankfully, there are quite a few remedies to help alleviate period pain (though not get rid of it entirely. Sorry).
Here are a few of the top recommendations:
-Ibuprofen and aspirin have both proven to be effective against countering period pain. But with a disclaimer: If you’re under 16, have asthma, or any stomach, kidney, or liver problems then don’t take aspirin.
-Heat pads or hot water bottles can be applied directly to the area to help alleviate pain, and a warm bath or shower may also help alleviate any discomfort too.
-If you smoke then quit it! It increases period pain and could even be a main aggravator for you. Before trying anything too drastic ditch the cigarettes and see if it makes a difference. If it does then bonus – you don’t have to shed out money for pain pills or cigarettes.
-Although it sounds like the worst suggestion ever, light exercise can help reduce pain through releasing certain chemicals in the body (and tension). But don’t overdo it. Swimming, walking, or cycling should be sufficient, or a very light routine. Yoga can also be fantastic.
-If you’re in to herbal remedies then turmeric is an amazing anti-inflammatory which might help you along your way to recovery too.
-Oh and, for the cherry on the pain reducing cake, massage has also been shown to be effective. So, if you want to practice self-love, or have someone in your life who is willing, it’s time to get pampered.
Period pain sucks, but even the worst of symptoms can be managed. Granted, it may require multiple trips to the doctor, pain pills, a hot water bottle, and a whole load of turmeric tea, but it can be managed.
If periods still confuse and concern you then do make sure to do extra research from reputable sources to find out whatever you’re worried about (or pop me an email at email@example.com).
Oh, and if anyone laughs off your cramps then feel free to give them a stone-cold stare (at the very least) and drop some fact bombs their way. You are now truly equipped to do so.