The dreaded time of the month; where we battle mood swings, bloating, eating our body weight in sugar and, worst of all, pain. The lucky ones amongst us might experience a bit of cramping, maybe a sore back but nothing a couple of painkillers can’t cure. For others it’s a different story with painful periods having us holed up in bed, feeling like the end is nigh.
Why Do Our Periods Hurt?
OK, so it sounds like an obvious question but have you ever thought about what’s really happening to your body when you have a period?
During your period your womb contracts in order to shed its lining. Each time it contracts it compresses the blood vessels in the womb, briefly cutting off their blood and oxygen supply. Without oxygen, the blood vessels release a chemical into the body which triggers the feeling of pain. At the same time our bodies are simultaneously releasing another chemical called prostaglandin; this chemical causes the womb to contract even more which in turn increases the pain.
It’s not really known why some women have really painful periods and others might experience only mild discomfort. Some studies suggest some women may have a build-up of prostaglandins in their body which causes stronger contractions. Research also indicates it could be hereditary so if your mother or grandmother suffered from painful periods then the chances are you will too.
When To Seek Help for Painful Periods
Although there are some things you can do to help cope with the pain (more on that later) you shouldn’t suffer in silence. If your period pain is debilitating and stopping you from living your normal life, it’s worth booking a visit to your GP to rule out anything more serious.
Period pain can be made worse by any of the following medical conditions:
Painful Periods Reason 1: Endometriosis
This is when cells similar to those found in the womb lining are found on other organs in the body, including the bladder, the fallopian tubes and ovaries. These cells react just like the cells in your womb; they break down once a month and bleed. This blood doesn’t have a way to leave the body the way a period does so this leads to inflammation, pain and scar tissue. As well as intense pain other symptoms of endometriosis include, fatigue and extreme tiredness, depression, fertility issues and trouble conceiving, heavy periods and pain when going to the bathroom.
Painful Periods Reason 2: Ovarian Cysts
Ovarian cysts are fluid filled sacs that appear on the ovaries. Many women suffer from them without even knowing they have them and they tend to go away on their own. In some cases, they can cause a dull ache or pain in the pelvic/lower abdomen area. They can also affect the menstrual cycle leading to heavy periods and irregular bleeding. Symptoms of ovarian cysts include pain during sex, bloating or swelling around the abdomen, difficulty going to the bathroom and a constant need to urinate.
Painful Periods Reason 3: Fibroids
These are non-cancerous growths that develop in the womb, made up of muscle and fibrous tissue. The exact cause of fibroids is unknown but there is some evidence to suggest there is a link between fibroids and estrogen; fibroids tend to shrink once a woman approaches menopause and the body’s estrogen production naturally slows down. Fibroids can cause heavy and painful periods, pain during sex, a frequent need to urinate and constipation.
Painful Periods Reason 4: Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
PID is a common medical condition where bacteria infects the womb, ovaries and fallopian tubes causing them to become inflamed and painful. PID is caused by bacterial infections which can include bacteria from sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia. Symptoms of PID are heavy and painful periods, irregular bleeding, bleeding during and after sex, discomfort during sex, pain when urinating and vaginal discharge
Coping With Pain
If your periods are painful you shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. Most painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen will help alleviate pain and allow you to go about your day. If that’s not doing the trick speak to your pharmacist who will be able to give you something a bit stronger, such as paracetamol with codeine. Heat helps to relax your muscles so keeping a hot water bottle close by and soaking in a warm bath will help ease any pain and tension in the muscles.
It might be the last thing on your mind when you’re on your period but exercise is great for helping ease pain. We’re not talking about running a marathon but some gentle exercise like jogging, walking and cycling can help reduce bloating and increase those feel-good hormones.
If even walking sounds like it might be too much why not try yoga instead? Some studies suggest certain yoga poses help relieve painful cramps; a quick search into Youtube will bring up hundreds of videos with easy, gentle poses you can try yourself at home. Yoga is also a great way to switch off your mind and distract from pain.
When you’re on your period it might feel like you want to eat everything in sight. While it’s a good idea to listen to what your body wants and not deny yourself anything do try to avoid the following:
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a stimulant which can exacerbate your already delicate mood swings. It can cause you to feel jittery and unable to relax
- Alcohol – Alcohol is inflammatory and can play havoc with your blood sugar and fluid levels. This can affect your mood as well as making you feel bloated
- Sugar – Another inflammatory, sugar can affect your energy levels causing you to feel lethargic and worn out
- Processed foods – These tend to be high in salt which leads to water retention and bloating
- Fatty and fried foods – Foods high in saturated fat have been proven to affect our bodies water retention and increase feelings of pain
- Dairy – Some research suggests a link between dairy and hormones so avoiding dairy products during your period when your hormones are already delicate is a good idea
Herbal Teas – Curling up on the sofa with a good book and a cup of tea is the perfect way to relax and unwind, especially when you’re on your period. Swap your usual tea or coffee for herbal tea instead. The below herbal teas are great for alleviating pain and bloating:
- Lemon balm
Taking Time For You
If you suffer from painful periods it’s important to look after yourself. Try to do things that make you feel good and don’t be too hard on yourself if you have to take a duvet day once in a while. While it’s a good idea to explore different remedies to period pain if you’re worried about your periods then do book an appointment with your GP.