What's Going On When You Have Cramps Before Your Period Starts?

For most people with uteruses, menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, are a monthly occurrence. It's that aching pain, or uncomfortable sensation one feels near the abdominal area when they get their period. It often lasts for a few days, and the severity is dependent on the person. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, some menstruating folks experience debilitating cramps to the point that it impacts their regular activities.

Everyday Health notes that when someone has their period, their uterus produces prostaglandins to help shed its lining, resulting in contraction. If your uterus contracts too strongly, it can cause temporary deprivation of oxygen in the uterine area, causing more pain and cramping. More often than not, the cramps can subside with the help of over-the-counter pain medication, hot compress, exercise, sleep, relaxation, or a combination of all these. Experiencing cramps and managing pain is pretty much routine to many at this point, but for some, cramps can happen as early as a week before their period.

Cramps before your period can be more than just PMS

Aside from cramps during periods, people with uteruses also experience pre-menstrual syndrome or PMS, which is characterized by "breast tenderness, weight gain, food cravings, acne, abdominal bloating, bowel changes including gas and diarrhea, feeling hungrier, fatigue, menstrual cramps, insomnia, and headaches" and more, Dr. Sheryl Ross, an OB-GYN, told Medical News Today.

Cramping a few days before your period is considered normal, but it can also be triggered by something else. For one, you may have endometriosis, a condition when uterine tissue forms outside of your uterus. It affects around 10% of people with ovaries, and sometimes, it can cause cysts and the development of scar tissue, leading to more pain. Healthline notes that cramping prior to the start of your period may also be caused by ovarian cysts, or perhaps uterine fibroids or myomas, noncancerous growths that develop on the uterus.

If you're not diagnosed with these conditions, your cramping may be due to either the early arrival of your period or ovulation pain, also called "mittelschmerz." It happens around two weeks before the onset of your period when your ovary releases an egg. The pain can last for a few minutes or hours, but in some cases, it can last up to two days.

All about alleviating cramps

Since time immemorial, uterus owners have been figuring out innovative ways to alleviate cramping and period pain. The most obvious workaround is to consume medication, ideally nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. Dr. Jovana Lekovich, a board-certified OB-GYN, noted that it could be anything "ibuprofen- or naproxen-based. That would include Aleve, Motrin, or Advil."

If you're not too keen on taking medication, you may also want to stay active and do exercises or apply heating on your lower abdomen. Apparently, masturbation helps, too. "Masturbating can help relieve anything from cramps and back pain to headaches and joint aches," Dr. Sherry Ross shared with Healthline. It may even shorten your cycle and allow for a more restful shuteye.

If your pain gets too much, it may be high time to consult a professional to plan a course of action. "[Getting checked out] is very important because we have a lot of medications that are available now and lots that are coming on to the market," explained Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University Medical School.