Here's the deal:
Getting period cramps for the first time can be rough. And honestly every time after that too. Today, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about your period cycle, period cramps and how to get the best relief for you.
Let's jump right in.
What is a period?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines a period as, “normal vaginal bleeding that occurs as part of a woman's monthly cycle. Every month, your body prepares for pregnancy. If no pregnancy occurs, the uterus, or womb, sheds its lining. The menstrual blood is partly blood and partly tissue from inside the uterus. It passes out of the body through the vagina.” A period typically lasts 3-7 days and can be accompanied by a host of other symptoms including abdominal cramping, lower back pain, bloating, food cravings, sore breasts, mood swings and headaches among others.
What is the difference between your period and your period cycle?
Your period is the first phase of your period cycle, which can last from 21 to 40 days. The other phases are follicular, ovulation, and luteal.
Menstrual Phase: This phase starts when an egg from the previous cycle isn’t fertilized. The thickened lining of your uterus, which would support a pregnancy, is no longer needed, so it sheds through your vagina. You release a combination of blood, mucus, and tissue from your uterus. On average, this lasts 3 to 7 days.
Follicular Phase: This phase starts on the first day of your period and ends when you ovulate. The follicle-stimulating hormone is released and stimulates your ovaries to produce follicles. Each follicle contains an immature egg. Only the healthiest egg will eventually mature. The rest of the follicles will be reabsorbed into your body. On average, this lasts from 11 to 27 days.
Ovulation Phase: Ovulation is when your ovary releases a mature egg. The egg travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus to be fertilized by sperm. Ovulation happens right in the middle of your period cycle. It lasts about 24 hours. After a day, the egg will die or dissolve if it isn’t fertilized.
Luteal Phase: After the follicle releases its egg, it changes into the corpus luteum. This structure releases hormones which keeps your uterine lining thick and ready for a fertilized egg to implant. If you don’t get pregnant, the corpus luteum will shrink away and be resorbed. You may experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) during this time.
What are period cramps?
The uterus contracts in order to expel its lining. Prostaglandins (a chemical) trigger the contraction of the uterus, higher levels of prostaglandins typically result in more painful cramps.
Lower abdomen cramping on your period is called dysmenorrhea. There are two types of dysmenorrhea, primary and secondary.
Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by the uterus creating an excess of prostaglandins which cause the muscles in your uterus to tighten and relax which causes the pain. This cramp pain can start a day or two before your period and typically lasts for a few days into your period, depending on the person. This type of cramping is usually worse when you are younger and gradually lessens as you get older, the pain will often lessen after having a baby.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by a condition such as endometriosis or other conditions that affect the uterus and other reproductive organs. The pain is typically more severe in this case and starts before your period and often lasts after your period is finished. Learn more about endometriosis below.
How long do period cramps last?
Cramps can start 1-2 days before your period and last for a few days into your period or sometimes even last the duration of your period. However, they are typically the worst at the beginning of your period. Cramp pain is more common in younger people and will often lessen after having a baby or with age.
Who gets cramps?
Anybody that experiences a period can get menstrual cramp pain. Each person has a differing intensity and severity of pain. Having a heavy flow or a history of period cramps in your family can increase the likelihood that you will experience severe cramp pain.
What do cramps feel like?
Period cramps can feel like a throbbing, stabbing and/or cramping in your lower abdomen/lower back. The pain can range from a severe shooting pain to a dull ache in both areas.
Having a period is a different experience for each person. Some period experiences can even be different every month for each person. The pain can also feel like a different sensation for each person.
Some people have more intense cramp pain without a definite reason. Other people’s cramp pain can be an effect of a medical condition. Three of these medical conditions are Endometriosis, PCOS, and Uterine Fibroids.
What is Endometriosis?
According to UCLA Health, “Endometriosis is a disorder where the tissue that makes up the uterine lining (the lining of the womb) grows outside the uterus. Endometriosis is usually found in the lower abdomen, or pelvis, but can appear anywhere in the body. Women with endometriosis often have lower abdominal pain, pain with periods, or pain with sexual intercourse, and may report having a hard time getting pregnant. On the other hand, some women with endometriosis may not have any symptoms at all. Endometriosis is estimated to affect between 3% and 10% of reproductive-aged women. “
The most common symptoms associated with Endometriosis are more painful cramps (in the pelvic, lower abdomen and back areas), longer periods, heavier bleeding, and bleeding/pain even before or after periods.
How is Endometriosis associated with cramp pain?
The way a person with Endometriosis experiences a period is different than a person who doesn’t have Endometriosis. Research has found they have “bleeding not only from the cells and tissue inside the uterus, but can also have bleeding from the cells and tissue outside the uterus. When blood touches these other organs, especially inside the abdomen, it can cause inflammation and irritation, creating pain. Sometimes, scar tissue can also develop from the endometriosis which can also contribute to the pain.”
People with Endometriosis may have cramp pain all the time or have pain that starts well before their period and lasts a while after their period. The pain from Endometriosis often worsens with age.
What is PCOS?
According to Healthline, “Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels…during their childbearing years (ages 15 to 44). Women with PCOS produce higher-than-normal amounts of male hormones. This hormone imbalance causes them to skip menstrual periods and makes it harder for them to get pregnant. PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small amount of male hormones called androgens.”
The three main symptoms of PCOS are cysts in the ovaries, high levels of male hormones, and irregular periods.
Other symptoms of PCOS include “weight gain, fatigue, painful intercourse, excess facial and body hair growth, acne, male-pattern baldness, ovarian cysts, and infertility.”
How does PCOS correlate with cramp pain?
The severity of the pain varies from person to person. When people with PCOS have a period, they often experience severe period pain, heavy bleeding, and blood clots. Period pain worsens as PCOS progresses, just like Endometriosis.
What are Uterine Fibroids?
According to Healthline, “Fibroids are abnormal growths that develop in or on a woman’s uterus. Sometimes these tumors become quite large and cause severe abdominal pain and heavy periods. In other cases, they cause no signs or symptoms at all. The growths are typically benign, or noncancerous.”
How do Uterine Fibroids correlate with cramp pain?
About 20% to 80% of women develop fibroids by the time they reach age 50. Not all women with fibroids have symptoms. Women who do have symptoms often have more pain and heavy menstrual bleeding.
Here’s what you should expect and do each day of your period (based off of a 6 day cycle):
*This is based off of the average length of a cycle, it is normal for this to vary from person to person
Day 1: This is the first day of your cycle, where your bleeding begins. The thickened lining of your uterus sheds through your vagina and a combination of blood, mucus and tissue. Typically, your bleeding is heaviest on the first day. You may feel very painful cramps on the first day. Other symptoms can include bloating, food cravings, sore breasts, mood swings, tiredness, and headaches among others. Use your heating pad or take medicine if you prefer for the pain. You should avoid eating/drinking cold items during your period. It may increase your pain and discomfort. You should eat/drink more hot items such as soup, pasta, green tea, and hot chocolate. Do what you can to take it easy. Your body is literally shedding blood. You’re a rockstar.
Day 2: On the second day, your bleeding will again be one of the heaviest. This will often also be the worst day of your cramps (ugh they really suck huh!) You may also continue to experience mood swings and tiredness. You should continue to use your heating pad or preferred medicine to reduce the intensity of the cramp pain. Continue to avoid cold items and consume warmer foods and drinks. Also, we recommend rewatching One Tree Hill or A Walk to Remember (or is that just us?)
Day 3: The third day is typically the final day of heavy bleeding. You will still experience painful cramps (you’re almost done with those hoes tho!) Keep using your preferred heated option, medication or home remedy. The lack of estrogen and lower hormone levels can also make you more irritable, annoyed, upset, and emotional. (I once cried because I dropped my zucchini noodles… good times) Try to do things that may lift your mood or just cry it out by watching A Walk to Remember again (we ain’t judging!)
Day 4: You will probably not be bleeding as heavily as the past few days. The blood may also start to change from a bright red to brown. Since it’s near the end of your cycle, the brown color signifies older blood so it’s not something you need to worry about. You also are more likely to stop having cramps on the fourth day. If you do have them, they won’t be as painful or intense as before.
Day 5: This is your lightest amount of bleeding, typically you’ll see more spotting than flow on this day. You may even be able to get away with wearing a panty liner or period proof underwear.
Day 6: On average, by 6th day, your period is over and the blood is gone now. Hallelujah. Freedom… Until we do it all over again next month. The joys of having a uterus, right?
What types of relief are there?
The most common types of relief are heat and medication. Heat can come in the form of a heated patch, microwaveable rice pack, hot water bottle, electric heating pad, hot baths, etc.. Common medications for treating cramp pain are ibuprofen and Midol. Anti-inflammatory drugs are the suggested medication for alleviating cramp pain. Other remedies that have been suggested are marijuana or CBD, a change in diet to eat foods that are better for cramp pain, or physical activity such as yoga or taking a walk.
What research has been done on all types of cramp relief?
Research has found that the most effective treatments for cramp pain are NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen, and heat. Based on existing research, there is not a significant difference in pain reduction between heat and NSAIDS. Some suggest that if the two options are equally effective, heat should be used due to the potential side effects of using medication. However, they also note that there has not been significant research done on potential harmful side effects of using heat but they do not foresee any significant negative side effects.
Why does heat work to relieve period cramp pain?
The heat increases blood flow to the areas near it and relaxes the contracting muscles which results in less cramp pain.
What are the best products you can get for period cramp relief?
If you prefer more natural pain relief, heated options will work best for you.
This electrical heating pad from Amazon has thousands of positive reviews and is perfect for when you’re laying in bed or on the couch. You can also adjust the heat to your preference.
For a portable heat option, get The Girls Company Band. It’s pretty much your trusty sidekick for cramps because you can take it anywhere, no wall outlet needed. You can wear it while you’re working from home, running errands, at a party, and on an airplane. The heat lasts at least 10 hours and has an ultra-thin and breathable fabric so you can’t even see it under a pencil skirt or leggings.
Also, here’s my personal favorite period product (cramp pain or not treat yo self)... Lindor Milk Chocolate Truffles because DUH. So good. Just get it. Thank us later.
*Please make sure to consult a doctor to get a proper diagnosis if you are experiencing very severe cramp pain. Don’t be afraid to go in for a consultation or to ask for help.
I hope this guide has been helpful for you to learn more about period cramps and how to get the relief you need.
Leave a comment down below about your thoughts or questions. We love hearing from you!
P.S. You’re a badass. For real for real.