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Health & Body

What causes period cramps?

A lot of us experience period pain, but do we know why? Keep reading to learn more about the science behind the infamous period side effect.

5 min read | June 13, 2022

Menstruation is a complex topic to talk about and many wonder, what is menstruation? Menstruation is your body’s way of preparing you for pregnancy and can often have painful side effects. Menstrual period pain is one of those things that bonds people with periods. Discussing menstrual pain symptoms like period cramps and period anxiety over drinks at the bar, while texting a friend as you fill up hot water bottles, or during conversations with strangers who lend you tampons in bathrooms. So it’s something a lot of us experience. But what do we actually know about the reasons behind why many of us feel this severe pain?

Menstrual period pain is one of those things that bonds people with periods.
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At Hummingway, you’ll see us using the term period pain, but just so you know, the scientific word for it is dysmenorrhea. And it can be divided into two levels:

  1. 1.

    Primary dysmenorrhea

  2. 2.

    Secondary dysmenorrhea

To make things clear and accurate (always the goal), we’ll refer to these scientific terms, but you’ll also see us using the term ‘period pain’ more generally, too.

So first up is primary dysmenorrhea. This severe period pain is something you may experience from menstrual bleeding, cycle to cycle ,and happens when the uterus contracts to shed the uterine lining. 

Prostaglandins (hormone-like compounds) are produced from the endometrium (the tissue lining the uterus) as progesterone levels drop at the end of each menstrual cycle, helping the uterus to contract and shed its uterine lining. These contractions constrict uterine blood vessels and encourage healthy inflammation. The severe pain bit happens when there’s a high level or excess of prostaglandins in the uterus lining. 

PSA: there is still so little research into prostaglandins, who they affect more, and how they really impact our menstrual cycle. We’re constantly looking at studies and will always update our pages to reflect new menstrual cramp pain information. 

Secondary dysmenorrhea is also the presence of painful menstrual cramping in the lower abdomen, but this abdominal pain may be caused by a more specific medical or physical cause. These might be reproductive disorders like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, or pelvic inflammatory disorder. 

Severe period pain can feel sharp, intense, and intermittent, or like a continuous dull ache. But, as you probably already know, painful cramps aren’t the only menstrual bleeding symptom. Enter: nausea, diarrhea or loose stools, headaches, and period fatigue

Primary dysmenorrhea typically occurs cycle-to-cycle and can start as early as when you get your first painful period, but may lessen over time. Secondary dysmenorrhea tends to develop later in life, and pelvic pain can worsen over time. Symptoms like period cramps can appear to correlate with other medical conditions, so we’d recommend going to your health care provider for a diagnosis.

About Author

Your hormones can be complex and unpredictable. That’s why we’re here, on The Regular, to do what’s long overdue - to demystify what’s going on with our reproductive systems, our hormones and our whole cycle.

We’re here to support your day-to-day queries serving useful content that is uncomplicated and unbiased. No topic is too complicated or too specific for us to address/focus on.

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