When adolescent women are taught about getting their period, one of the first things they learn is that cramping is normal. And of course that’s true – menstrual cramps are a common symptom of healthy menstruation. But because young women may not learn that menstrual pain is on a spectrum, many suffer needlessly through severe, abnormal pain, sometimes well into adulthood.
While some cramping is normal, severe period pain can and should be treated and managed. This includes pain that is constant, long lasting or strong enough to make it impossible to carry out your regular activities. While many of the causes of severe period pain are not harmful, they can affect your fertility and quality of life. Other conditions may be more serious.
If you or a loved one may be experiencing extreme period pain, here’s what you need to know.
Normal and Abnormal Period Pain
As you may know, when an egg isn’t fertilized, the body sheds the lining of the uterus, including the egg, and bleeding starts – this is what we call your period. During menstruation, the uterus will contract strongly, which can cause it to briefly cut off oxygen to surrounding muscle tissues. This causes what we typically call cramps.
The medical term for cramps is dysmenorrhea, and it affects more than half of all women who menstruate.1 It is usually mild and lasts for one or two days. When it is caused by regular uterine contractions, it is called primary dysmenorrhea, and while not fun, it’s a manageable part of life.
Secondary dysmenorrhea, however, happens when there is a disorder in the reproductive organs. This type of pain can be more severe, and it should be brought to your doctor’s attention.
When Is Period Pain A Problem?
The first sign that your period pain may be abnormal is if it regularly affects your ability to carry out your daily routines. If you regularly can’t work, go to school, or do your regular household activities on your period, you should speak to your doctor.
Other signs of abnormal period pain include:
- Cramps that last longer than 2-3 days, or cramps that never cease
- Cramps that aren’t helped by over-the-counter pain medication. Note: never take more than the recommended dosage.
- Cramps that are accompanied by heavy bleeding.
If you experience pelvic pain at other times if your cycle, or if you also experience painful penetrative sex, that is a sign you should speak to your doctor.
Other related symptoms that you should bring to your doctor are heavy bleeding (learn more about abnormal menstruation here), irregular cycles or spotting, and if you experience nausea or diarrhea with your cramps.
If you experience fever, vomiting, dizziness, unusual bleeding or discharge, you should call your doctor immediately.2 And if your pain is so severe that you want to call an ambulance, you should.
Bottom line: if your cramps don’t feel ‘normal,’ listen to your intuition.
What Causes Painful Periods
Possible causes of severe period pain include:
- Ovarian cysts
- Cervical stenosis
- IUD birth control devices
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Existing issues with your reproductive organs may cause problems, and other medical conditions like Crohn’s disease can flare up during your period.
These conditions may not be life-threatening, but they can certainly diminish your quality of life, and they can also cause issues with infertility. Moreover, while cramps don’t cause cancer, women with moderate or severe menstrual pain have a higher risk of ovarian cancer, and may benefit from more frequent screening – all the more reason to seek medical help.3
Finding A Doctor
Unfortunately, some women report having a hard time getting their doctor to take their period pain seriously. If you are concerned about your severe pain, keep bringing it up with your doctor, even if you’ve been dismissed in the past.
Getting support will be much easier if you find a doctor who specializes in pelvic health. Our Physician Finder can help you find a specialist in your area.
Women have been told a lie: you don’t have to power through painful cramps that disrupt your life. Educate yourself, and don’t be afraid to speak up to get the help you need.