Almost every woman that has a period will also have menstrual cramps. It is, unfortunately, a normal part of a woman’s reproductive system. For some women, however, the cramps can be severely debilitating. If this is the case, it’s a potential indicator that the cramps are not just a result of a normal menstrual cycle and may instead be an indicator of something more serious – which this article will touch upon a bit later. But first, Vancouver-based family physician, Dr. Ali Ghahary, shares some insight as to what typically causes menstrual cramps, how long a period will typically last, and what you can do to find some relief.

The good news is that menstruation is only temporary, and a period will, on average, typically last approximately 3 to 5 days – though it’s not uncommon for periods to also last anywhere from 2 to 7 days, as every female is different. Those 2 to 7 days, however, can be a nightmare to some and may feel like an eternity with some of the symptoms that can be present – including mood swings and irritability, fatigue, headaches, food cravings, bloating, breast tenderness, lower back pain, and, as mentioned, abdominal cramping. In some cases, a woman’s period may last longer or be shorter, and bleeding may be lighter or heavier than usual. As many as 14 to 25 percent of women experience cycle irregularities such as these, and these irregularities also often occur with abdominal cramps. There are many different types of menstrual irregularities, and each have different terms: Amenorrhea, oligomenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, polymenorrhea, and more. You can read more information on each of these irregularities and what their terms mean by clicking here. If your menstrual cramps are severe, they could be caused as a result of other underlying health issues, including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or uterine fibroids.

As for alleviating menstrual cramps and other related symptoms, there are many things you can do to find relief – the quickest being to take pain-relieving medication, such as acetaminophen, or an NSIAD, such as ibuprofen. NSAIDs, in particular, lower the production of prostaglandin, which is what causes cramps to occur. If you are not planning on getting pregnant, you can also find relief by taking oral contraceptives (birth control); however, note that many birth control medications can cause side-effects, including potential spotting, nausea, breast tenderness, a decreased sex drive, and a higher risk of developing blood clots (which can be life threatening.) Sometimes finding relief from menstrual cramps is all about making lifestyle changes, such as improving your diet. In fact, research has shown that women who consume a low-fat diet will actually have decreased levels of inflammation throughout their bodies, which means decreased menstrual cramps. You should also try to increase your magnesium intake, which can be found in foods as well as from supplements. If you don’t already have a low-fat diet and want to start eating healthier but don’t know where to begin, Dr. Ghahary offers plenty of healthy eating tips that you can find right here. For a more natural way of finding relief, try drinking herbal tea, massaging your lower abdomen with essential oils, and boosting endorphins through exercise. If all else fails, you may just want to curl up in bed with a heating pad. According to a 2001 study done on 84 women, applying heat to the abdomen to reduce menstrual cramps was just as effective as taking a NSAID like ibuprofen. You can read more about this study through BMJ – a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal.

For more insight into menstrual cramps as well as information on when you should see a doctor, visit HealthLink BC.