Once a month, the aches and pains of menstruation can make even the toughest of women crawl into bed with a hot water bottle. If you are wondering what it means to get period cramps in your lower back you are definitely not alone. While the predominance of the pain usually sticks to the lower abdomen, experiencing pain in your legs and lower back during your period is totally normal (cold comfort, I know).
The pain caused by menstrual cramps, also known as dysmenorrhea, can start right before your period arrives and persist for two to three days after. According to WebMD, cramps are no small issue, with half of menstruating women reporting some sort of accompanying discomfort during that time of the month and 10 percent momentarily disabled by the pain. If you've called out from work due to severe cramps, you're in good company — it's one of the leading causes of absenteeism in women under 30.
So what causes this uncomfortable and decidedly unpleasant bodily upheaval? Over the course of the month, a surge of hormones prompts the uterine lining to grow and thicken in anticipation for possible pregnancy. Around day 14 in the menstrual cycle an egg is released and if it is not fertilized the uterus contracts to expel its excess lining (and start the whole process over again. Yippee!).
To shed the lining, the tissue that surrounds the uterus produces hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins that trigger the muscles to contract. These pesky prostaglandins are mostly to blame for period pain, which mean the more prostaglandins present, the more severe the contractions and the pain. These hormone-like chemicals can also cause inflammation, pain, headache, vomiting and diarrhea.
With your uterus doing the heavy lifting it may seem odd that your lower back is throbbing during the first few days of your period. The unfortunate back pain is what is known as "referred pain," which is pain felt in part of the body that is not the source. When your cramps start, the sensations radiate through a network of interconnecting sensory nerves that run through different tissues, leading the pain to be felt in your back, legs, and other areas (so, no, you are not having actual contractions in your back). Additionally, when the uterus contracts it can constrict the blood vessels feeding it, temporarily cutting off oxygen supply to the surrounding muscles. The uterus sits in the pelvic region near the bladder and colon, so the whole lower body is affected.
To dull the "belt of pain" surrounding the lower back and abdomen, it can be helpful to pop some anti-inflammatory at the start of the period, or even before the cramping pain begins. Homeopathic treatments such as heating pads, back massages, and upping your calcium intake can also ease the aches. If, however, the period pain is severe and continuous, there may be other, more serious issues at play, such as Endometriosis, uterine fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease, or cervical stenosis (a narrow cervix opening). So if period pain isn't responding to over-the-counter treatment, and is impeding you from living your life, it's definitely worth bring it up at your next doctor's appointment.
Look, periods are just not fair, but they are an excellent excuse to put on some pajamas and catch up on your fave reality TV programming. To make life a little easier, consider chowing down on some walnuts and dark chocolate while you're at it — it may just improve your mood and your health.