Many women have pain with their periods, especially when they are in their teens. In most cases, menstrual pain does not mean a more serious problem, although sometimes it can be associated with endometriosis or uterine fibroids, non-cancerous tumors in the uterus.
The medical term for menstrual pain is primary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea usually starts 2 - 3 years after the first period, as a woman begins to ovulate regularly. Pain usually starts a day or two before menstrual flow, and may continue through the first 2 days of the period. Often, pain gets better as a woman gets older, or after she has a child.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by underlying conditions, such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms and degree of pain vary, but they may include the following:
What Causes It?
Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by strong contractions of the uterus triggered by prostaglandins, chemicals in the body that are involved in inflammation and pain. Generally, the higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more menstrual pain.
Secondary dysmenorrhea can be caused by:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
A pelvic examination may include an internal examination, laparoscopy, and ultrasound. You may need a Pap test. Your doctor may also ask for blood and urine samples.
Initial treatment is focused on relieving pain.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) -- help relieve pain. They can cause stomach upset, so taking them with food may help. Long-term use can increase the risk of stomach bleeding. NSAIDs include over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and naproxen (Aleve). Prescription NSAIDs are also available.
Birth control pills and patches -- can help relieve pain and may be prescribed for problems such as endometriosis.
For menstrual pain results caused by pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Some women find that changing their diets makes cramps less severe. Mind-body techniques such as meditation and exercises such as yoga and tai chi can also help relieve pain.
Nutrition and Supplements
The following supplements may also help relieve menstrual pain:
Herbs are generally available as standardized dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures or liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls in a cup of water, steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need to be steeped longer).
No scientific studies have been done on whether these herbs can reduce menstrual pain, but some have been used traditionally for pain relief. Some researchers think these herbs may act like estrogen in the body. Women who have a history of hormone-related cancer, who are taking hormone replacement therapy, or who have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood-thinning medication should ask their doctor before taking these herbs:
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. However, a professional homeopath may recommend one or more of the following treatments for menstrual pain based on his or her knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
The following methods may help relieve pelvic pain:
Acupuncture has become a popular treatment for menstrual pain. The National Institutes of Health recommend acupuncture either by itself or along with other treatments for menstrual pain. In a well-designed study of 43 women with menstrual pain, women treated with acupuncture had less pain and needed less pain medication.
Acupuncturists treat people with dysmenorrhea based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of energy (called qi) located in various meridians. In the case of dysmenorrhea, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the liver and spleen meridians. Moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) is often added to enhance needling treatment, and qualified practitioners may also recommend herbal or dietary treatments.
Acupressure also works to relieve pain. A study of 216 female students found that acupressure and ibuprofen were better than placebo at reducing pain.
Some people with menstrual pain may find relief with spinal manipulation, particularly in areas that supply sensory and motor impulses to the uterus and lower back.
If your symptoms change, or treatment does not help, tell your provider.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugar before your period starts.
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Review Date: 1/1/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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