10 Signs You Have Dysmenorrhea — And What You Can Do About It

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual and reproductive health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: signs you have dysmenorrhea — aka unusually painful menstrual cramps.

Q: I have super intense, painful cramps. Like, can’t go to work, can’t get out of bed cramps. I know that lots of people have cramps but this really sucks. I feel like something’s wrong with me. Is there anything I can do to fix this, or is this my life until menopause? How do I know if this is normal or if my cramps are more painful than they should be?

A: I’m so sorry this is happening to you. No one should have to deal with monthly obliterating pain, but for so many of us this is unfortunately a reality. It sounds like you have dysmenorrhea, which is the fancy scientific term for horrible menstrual cramps.

What Is Dysmenorrhea?

Dysmenorrhea is menstrual cramps, but there’s actually a bit more to it than that. There are two types — primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is when you have painful cramps but there is no underlying medical cause. It’s most common in people aged 20 to 24 and usually goes away in a year or two.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is when you have painful cramps and there is a medical reason for it. Potential causes of intense menstrual cramps include uterine fibroids, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and stress. Overall, dysmenorrhea is extremely common, with one study finding that 84 percent of women had painful cramps sometimes. So unfortunately, for pretty much everyone with a uterus, you are not alone.

How Can I Tell If I Have It?

To know if you have primary or secondary dysmenorrhea, you need to get checked out by a doctor to see if you have any of the underlying causes. But to know if you have dysmenorrhea, you just need to listen to your body. If your uterus is hurting around the time of your period, you most likely are dealing with this extremely common situation. Here are the signs to look for.

1. You Have Abdominal Pain

Your uterus is in your abdominal region, so if it’s cramping you’ll feel it there. If you have pain somewhere else, close this article and call your doctor because you don’t have cramps — you have something else.

2. Your Pain Spreads Down To Your Back And Thighs

The pain doesn’t have to be localized to your abdomen, though. Lots of people feel cramps as pain radiating down from their uterus to their thighs, and through to their backs.

3. You Might Describe Your Pain As Dull, Constant, Or Throbbing

Describing pain is a bit weird, because everyone has different ways of thinking about it. However, most cramps are described as feeling crampy (duh) or throbbing. You can also think of it as a dull ache that’s always there.

4. You’re Nauseated

The pain that comes from cramps can make you feel nauseated, like you might vomit. Actually, some people actually do throw up from cramps.

5. Your Stool Is Loose

If around your period in addition to feeling pain you notice that you have more diarrhea or loose stool (which is on the way to diarrhea but not quite), this can also be a symptom of dysmenorrhea — though it's also simply a common symptom of having your period.

6. You’re Constipated

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, you could get constipated. This can actually cause your cramps to feel worse; you have a limited amount of space around that area, so if you’re stopped up, your uterus is being pushed on more, which can feel not-great if you’re already hurting.

7. Your Pain Comes With Headaches

Some people with dysmenorrhea get headaches in addition to their cramps. So if you notice that you are getting headaches around your period, cramps could be the culprit.

8. You’re Dizzy

Cramps can make you feel lightheaded, faint, or dizzy. If you faint (or nearly faint) around your period, dysmenorrhea could be the reason.

9. Your Period Blood Has Bloodclots

It’s normal for your period blood to have some clots in it. However, these can be painful to expel through your cervix and can contribute to cramping pain.

10. Your Pain Comes Right Before Or During Your Period

Most people with dysmenorrhea start feeling crampy a couple days before their period, while for others the cramping starts with their flow. For most, the cramps go away a couple days after their period starts.

How Do I Make It Better?

If you have secondary dysmenorrhea, you will have to work with your doctor to identify the underlying medical cause for your pain. Once you fix that, your cramps will usually subside.

However, for both primary and secondary dysmenorrhea, there are some things you can do to feel better. Heat usually makes cramps dissipate, so try snuggling with a heating pad or hot water bottle. Painkillers, particularly anti-inflammatory drugs, will help your muscles relax. And if you’re more on the holistic track, you can try acupuncture as well as herbs, including Black Cohosh, Turmeric, Chaste Tree/Berry, and Cramp Bark.

Exercising can also limit cramps, and you don’t have to do it when you’re actively feeling the pain. Upping your exercise during the rest of your cycle will translate to the time when you’re most cramp-prone. Staying hydrated, eating foods high in calcium and antioxidants, and lowering intake of alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine can also help. If you’re in a place where you can legally get marijuana, that has been shown to help with cramps as well. Orgasms can also help your muscles stop cramping, and chilling out more generally is a good idea, since stress is one of the main culprits for menstrual pain.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, cramps are kind of part of having a uterus (stick with me here). Your uterus is a muscle that every month has to shake off its lining, and cramping is an annoying side effect of this experience. But that also doesn't mean it has to be super painful! If you’re suffering from cramps, be proactive. Figure out what works for you and remember to actually do it.

And remember — sometimes, these symptoms can also be a sign of a more serious condition, like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease. So if every month comes with pain for you, you should go to your doctor to get checked and rule any other conditions out. Don't suffer in silence!

Images: Pixabay; Giphy