Menstrual cramps, medically known as Dysmenorrhea, are throbbing or cramping pains in the lower abdomen. 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 continual process. Many women suffer from both PMS and menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps can range from mild to quite severe. For some women, the discomfort is merely annoying, but for others, the menstrual cramps can be severe enough to interfere with everyday activities for a few days every month.
Menstrual cramps are pains that begin in the lower abdomen and pelvis. The discomfort can extend to the lower back or legs. Pain also may be felt in the lower back, inner thighs, or hips. Menstrual cramps usually start shortly before the menstrual period, peak within 24 hours after the onset of the bleeding and subside again after a day or two. They can be periodic or continual.
Symptoms of menstrual cramps include:
- Throbbing or cramping pain in the lower abdomen that may be intense;
- Dull, constant ache;
- Pain that radiates to the lower back and thighs;
- Constipation or diarrhea;
- Frequent need to urinate.
During the menstrual period, the uterus contracts to help expel its lining. Hormone-like substances (prostaglandins) involved in pain and inflammation trigger the uterine muscle contractions. Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more-severe menstrual cramps.
Severe contractions may constrict the blood vessels feeding the uterus. The resulting pain can be compared to the chest pain that occurs when blocked blood vessels starve portions of the heart of food and oxygen.
Menstrual cramps may also be caused by:
- Uterine fibroids;
- Pelvic inflammatory disease;
- Cervical stenosis.
The following categories of women are considered to be at greater risk of menstrual cramps:
- If they are younger than age 30;
- If they started puberty early, at age 11 or younger;
- If they have heavy bleeding during periods;
- If they have irregular menstrual bleeding;
- If they never given birth;
- If they have a family history of Dysmenorrhea;
- If they are smokers.
Menstrual cramps do not cause any other medical complications, but they can interfere with school, work and social activities. However, certain conditions associated with menstrual cramps may have complications. For example, endometriosis can cause fertility problems; pelvic inflammatory disease can scar the fallopian tubes, increasing the risk of a fertilized egg implanting outside of the uterus.