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What Causes Menstrual Cramps?

written by: weborglodge • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 4/5/2011

What is the one condition that over 50 percent of women experience with nearly 10 percent of individuals unable to carry out their normal daily routine? There are two causes of menstrual cramps. They can either be caused by a medical condition or have no specific identifiable cause.

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    Hormonal Changes during Menstruation

    Menstruation is a monthly cycle of hormone-directed events that prepare a woman's body for pregnancy. Estrogen and other hormones cause the lining of the uterus to thicken. High estrogen levels cause the release of other hormones which trigger ovulation. This event coincides with the symptoms of PMS followed by menstrual cramps.

    If pregnancy does not occur, the thickened outer uterine layer is not needed. Thus, it will begin to die off. The uterus will then shed the remaining blood, fluid, and tissue as estrogen and progesterone levels drop.

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    What Causes Menstrual Cramps?

    As the inner uterine layer or endometrium dies, it releases prostaglandins, an organic compound that acts like a local hormone. Prostaglandins cause the uterus to contract as it attempts to expel the dead uterine tissue through the cervix. This action causes the lower abdominal cramps and the pelvic pain that some women experience during their period.

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    Physical Factors Affecting Menstrual Cramps

    Since prostaglandins cause the onset of menstrual flow, elevated levels of prostaglandins in the endometrium can trigger more intense cramping, adding to your discomfort. Other physical causes can lead to painful periods such as a narrow cervical canal or a backward-tilting uterus. These characteristics can make it difficult for the uterus to expel the dead uterine layer, thereby increasing the severity of menstrual cramps.

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    Other Health Factors

    Other factors can play a role in the causes of menstrual cramps. Lack of exercise or stress may contribute to a painful period. Your lifestyle may also affect your tendency to cramp. For example, periods tend to be more painful in women who smoke or drink alcohol. A good diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and a more active lifestyle may help prevent menstrual pain as well as relieve your PMS symptoms.

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    Secondary Conditions

    Sometimes menstrual cramps may indicate a more serious condition. Severe lower abdominal pain can indicate a health ailment of the reproductive system. Endometriosis is a common condition that may cause these symptoms. The condition occurs when endometrial tissue develops outside of the uterus, oftentimes outside of the uterus itself or on the ovaries.

    Some scientists believe that because of its origin, it responds to hormone levels just as cells do within the uterus, therefore contributing to abdominal cramping. Other possible causes of severe menstrual cramps include uterine fibroids or ovarian cysts. A woman with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) may also experience cramping not unlike those experienced during menstruation.

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    Treating Menstrual Cramps

    You can follow home treatment options exist for treating your abdominal pain. Many women find relief from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. In addition to their anti-inflammatory action, these drugs can provide additional comfort by acting as anti-prostaglandins agents and reducing blood flow. You may feel less achy if you use a heating pad or rest with your feet elevated.

    Women who are prone to menstrual cramps should get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly. Try to reduce stress through yoga or other relaxing activity. Prevention is often the best strategy. Menstruation does not have to upset your day. A healthy lifestyle and taking pain medications when needed can help you quickly get back on track. Listen to your body, and take care of yourself.

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    Resources

    Medicine Net: "Menstrual Cramps" medicine.net.com

    Health Square: "Women's Health: Menstrual Cramps" healthsquare.com

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