For most of my adult life, I was one of those lucky women who have no discernible “side effects” of menstruation. No PMS, no mood swings, no cramps, none of it.
Then I gave birth to Oscar, and nine months later, my cycle returned – I quickly learned that my smooth-sailing days of menstruation were over. My period lasts longer than before and is less consistent, and the first and second days of my period are marked by pronounced lower back pain and intense cramping, also known as dysmenorrhea. I have so much more sympathy now for women with severe PMS (pre menstrual syndrome). As an aside, it is much more common for women to stop having dysmenorrhea after having a child than to develop it is for them to develop it for the first time. Lucky me. In my case, it is most likely the result of scar tissue from having had a cesarean birth.
To make the best out of a not-so-pleasant thing, I’m embracing it as a learning opportunity. I’m getting acquainted with my new cycle, and I’m also learning about what can be done to relieve the discomfort of cramping. But let’s start by figuring out what dysmenorrhea is in the first place.
As we’ve mentioned already, dysmenorrhea is the word for the cramping pains that often accompany a woman’s period, and it affect over 50% of menstruating women. The cramps in question are actually the tightening of the uterine muscle. About 10% of those with dysmenorrhea experience cramps so intense as to be incapacitating, usually for a period of one to three days. More often, it’s just really uncomfortable. In fact the word dysmenorrhea comes from the Greek language and means “difficult monthly flow.” For those of you interested in fertility issues, “Dysmenorrhea occurs only in cycles where ovulation has occurred,” (Hudson 226).
As can be intuited above, hormonal shifts are one trigger for dysmenorrhea, and calcium also plays a role: “About 10 days before menstruation begins, calcium levels in the blood begin to drop, and they continue to drop until about 3 days into the cycle. Blood calcium deficiency is responsible for many of the symptoms of painful menstruation,” (Gladstar 218), so increasing your dietary calcium intake may help prevent symptoms.
In most cases, dysmenorrhea is just a normal side effect of menstruation. However, it’s worth noting that is some cases the cramps may be, “due to some specific pelvic or systemic condition such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, adhesions, ovarian cysts, celiac disease, thyroid conditions, congenital malformations, narrowing of the cervical opening, polyps, or uterine fibroids,” (Hudson 225). As always, you should discuss any symptoms and concerns you may have with your doctor.
To relieve these symptoms, there are a number of uterine tonics and anti-spasmodics that can help soothe and relax the uterine muscle, and nerviness to soothe the individual. Specific herbs include cramp bark (hence the name) and black haw bark, both anti-spasmodics specific to the uterus; and pasque flower, a “relaxing nervine for use in problems relating to nervous tension and spasm in the reproductive system,” (Hoffman 131). Black cohosh, false unicorn root, and wild yam may be considered, but please be sure that, with these three especially, you are using only sustainably harvested herbs (Hoffman 161, 235).
Other things that can help relieve or prevent dysmenorrhea include maintaining a normal, healthy weight, chiropractic treatments, exercise (abdominal crunches help me), healthy diet, not smoking, and my favorite: gentle heat applied to the lower back.
What are your favorite herbs or methods of relieving or preventing dysmenorrhea?