If you're someone who gets a period, about once a month, you probably start to feel some annoying pain as you start to menstruate. What you might not realize, though, is that
cramps that aren't period-related are also a thing, so it's possible to have what feels like period pain any time of the month. This might seem terribly unfair, but the good news is that by paying attention to the signals that your body is telling you, you (and maybe your doctor) can figure out what health problem is to blame.
When it comes to cramping, it may be your body's way of telling you that several different things are going on that may not necessarily be period-related. For example, Mayo Clinic says that stomach issues like
irritable bowel syndrome can contribute to cramping, among other symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and bloating. If these problems become persistent for you, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor.
But you can also get period-
related cramps when you aren't actually bleeding yet. "You can get cramps even before your period starts," Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, MD, a board-certified family and emergency medicine doctor, tells Bustle. "Cramps can occur during ovulation," she says. "This is a normal process."
Here are some reasons you might be cramping, according to experts.
You might expect that a digestion issue would cause your stomach to start hurting, but what you might
not realize is that it can actually cause your lower abdomen to feel pretty cramped as well. " Constipation can cause bloating, aching, cramping," Nesheiwat says. "This can happen before during or after a menstrual cycle." If you notice that you're getting cramps but you aren't on your period, one easy way to try to eliminate the annoying pain is to making sure you're drinking enough water (or sparkling water if that's more your thing). Even if the cramps don't turn out to be due to constipation, drinking water can never hurt.
"Fibroids are usually benign tumors that can cause aches and pains at any time and sometimes results in heavy menstrual cycles," Nesheiwat. These tumors, which grow on the walls of the uterus, can be
caused by hormones or be genetic, and can be as small as an apple seed or as big as a grapefruit. "If the pain is severe or the fibroids are large sometimes intervention is necessary," she says. This might mean getting surgery to remove the fibroids or taking prescription medications. While this condition can sound scary, do your best not to worry. "It's very common and quite treatable," Nesheiwat says. Mladen Zivkovic/Shutterstock
Ovarian cysts can cause more cramping than your menstrual cycle for some people," Nesheiwat says. These, like fibroids, are pretty common for people who have ovaries. Depending on their size and type, you and your doctor could decide that hormonal birth control is the best treatment for your body, or opt for surgery to address them. If you're experiencing unusual aches and pains, don't just live with the pain. "This is why it's so important to see your doctor routinely," Nesheiwat says, "to get your routine pap smear, gynecological tests, [and] evaluation for abnormal cervical cells or ovarian cysts." A regular doctor's appointment also gives you a chance to bring up cramps that are unusual or out of the ordinary. An ultrasound can determine if you have cysts or fibroids.
If you've ever eaten a big meal and then gone for a run or accidently had dairy when you're actually lactose intolerant, you've probably experienced some pretty uncomfortable stomach cramps. It turns out that stomach pain and period pain can sometimes manifest in the same places in your body. A number of gastrointestinal issues can be to blame for your cramps if you aren't menstruating,
Dr. Kate Killoran, OB/GYN, a gynecologist who works with Your Doctors Online, tells Bustle. In addition to constipation, conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or diarrhea can cause cramping in the bowels, which can feel much like period cramps, she says. G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Some STIs can actually cause stomach cramping, Nesheiwat says. Chlamydia, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), and Gonorrhea can all
cause abdominal pain, as well as other symptoms. This might sound scary, but there is some good news. A quick test will be able to confirm whether you do have an STI or not. The key is not to wait too long to seek treatment, though. "If symptoms persist, be sure to see a doctor right away because antibiotics are required before the infection spreads or results in scarring or infertility," Nesheiwat says. If you're concerned in the slightest that you could have an STI, there's no shame in it. Find a testing location near you.
Urinary tract infections are another type of infection that can cause cramping due to inflammation of the bladder," Killoran says. This is one cramp source that you might be able to identify pretty easily, because it comes with a number of symptoms that can separate it from other health issues. With a UTI, you're likely to feel like you need to pee very often, and notice some unusual symptoms like pain with urination, unusual urine color, or even blood in your urine. See your doctor to receive a prescription for antibiotics that will help banish your UTI and get you back to being cramp-free.
If you have unexplained cramps, you might start to stress about what's causing the pain. But that can actually make things worse. It turns out that something as seemingly benign as
stress can actually cause cramps, Nesheiwat says. If your doctor says that you're very healthy physically, this might be a cause to consider. "Engage in a hobby you enjoy, read a book, mediate, do yoga, go for a hike, listen to your favorite music, take a hot bath, enjoy a glass of wine," she says. "Do whatever it takes to care for you. Self-care and mindfulness are important to function at your best."
Whatever your sleuthing unearths as the culprit behind your cramps, make sure that you're taking the time to care for your body. Whether your period is to blame or something else entirely, don't ignore your pain.
Editor's Note: This piece was updated from its original version on July 3, 2019 to meet Bustle's editorial standards.