Having our period every month can (literally) be a pain. In addition to dealing with body aches and pads or tampons, we also have to make sure our clothes don't get stained (definitely not in public, how embarrassing!) and that we can summon up enough energy and be in the right mood to partake in any activities. Most of us suffer from period cramps but the severity differs from woman to woman. And while it's a normal part of the menstrual cycle, period cramps can occasionally be a symptom of something more serious.
Why Do We Get Cramps?
Our period is basically the lining of our uterus shedding every month when fertilisation doesn't take place. Cramps come into play because of certain chemicals that are released during this process, which trigger an inflammatory response leading to muscle contractions in the uterus; we feel these contractions as cramps.
When Do I Need To Worry?
- Most women suffer from cramps that are easy to treat with painkillers or heat pads. If the pain doesn't go away even with these treatments, tell your doctor about it.
- A period is, like it or not, part of life that we have to deal with. But if your cramps stop you in your tracks, that's not normal. If you find that you’re unable to participate in the stuff you usually enjoy – or are unable to even get out of bed – it's time to get help.
- If you feel that your pain has become more severe over time, your body might be trying to tell you something. Your period will change over the years, in terms of your PMS symptoms and how much (or little) you bleed, but if the shift is sudden, talk to your doctor.
- If you have cramps when you're not having your period, it could be a sign of a bigger issue.
What Could Be The Problem?
Unfortunately, severe period cramps could be a symptom of something more sinister. Here are some possibilities:
Endometriosis – this is a condition where uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. If left untreated, it could lead to scar tissue that could cause fertility problems. This condition is more likely if your cramps have always been horrific, as it typically doesn't appear after having your period for a few years.
Fibroids – this is a common condition where benign tumours grow in the walls of the uterus. Depending on the size, number and location, treatment can be via medication, ultrasound procedures or minor surgery.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease – PID is an infection of the lining of the uterus which then spreads to other reproductive organs such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Around 60 percent of women with PID contract it as a result of the bacteria that cause common STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea. PID can be treated with antibiotics. Women with PID may experience cramps that get progressively worse as their period progresses ie. the pain is worse on days three to five, as compared to days one and two.
Ovarian cysts – these are common and most women don't know they have cysts in their ovaries, as these refer to the build-up of regular tissue and only pose a problem when they become big enough to rupture. If your cramps are only on one side of your stomach, you could have a cyst in one of your ovaries. Your doctor will be able to see it through a pelvic ultrasound and, depending on the size, you might need to have surgery to remove it.
Ectopic Pregnancy/Miscarriage – you might not know you're pregnant and might mistake the bleeding for your period and the pain involved as cramps. This pain obviously happens only during one cycle. An ectopic pregnancy – where a pregnancy occurs outside the uterus (usually in the fallopian tubes) – can be life-threatening, so go to the hospital immediately if this is something that you suspect you may be experiencing.