Painful menstrual cycles are characterized by uterine pain before and during menstruation. These ‘cramps’ are also known as dysmenorrhea (derived from the Greek “dys” meaning difficult or painful; “meno” meaning month; and “rrhea,” or flow) and can be felt as a sharp or throbbing pain accompanied by lower back pain, headache, digestive issues, and nausea.
During a woman’s cycle, the endometrium, or lining of the uterus, thickens in preparation for potential pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur, the body needs to rid itself of this unnecessary uterine tissue. Pain occurs when molecular compounds called prostaglandins are released. The compounds cause the muscles of the uterus to contract, which accomplishes a very important task—constricting the blood supply to the tissue of the endometrium, which dies and then passes out of the body—but also may cause the terrible ache that women experience as painful menstruation.
Some women are prescribed birth control formulations marketed specifically for sufferers of painful or disruptive menstrual cycles. While the potential link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer is not yet fully understood, there are other major health risks related to the use of birth control, including (but certainly not limited to) heart attack, stroke, immune system suppression, and blood clots in the legs, lungs, heart, and brain.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are another common tool used to fight the pain of cramps. While these over the counter drugs, which include ibuprofen and naproxen, are an effective temporary solution, long term use can cause gastrointestinal disorders such as gastric ulceration or bleeding. They also increase the risk of heart attack, and are one of the leading causes of death in the United States.