During menstruation, hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins trigger the uterus to contract. This helps your body get rid of the uterine lining. This can be painful or uncomfortable, and is what’s commonly referred to as “cramps.”

Cramps can also be caused by:

Cramps can vary in intensity and duration for everyone. They typically vary over the course of your period, with the pain or discomfort lessening after the first few days. This is because the level of prostaglandins is reduced as the uterine lining is shed and the prostaglandins in the lining are expelled from your body.

Often, people will have pain in their lower abdomen or back. But some will only experience pain in the lower back. Some people also experience cramping in their upper thighs.

The uterus is a muscle. When it contracts and relaxes during cramping, it can feel:

  • sharp
  • poking
  • aching or tightening similar to a muscle cramp-like pain
  • like a mild stomachache, or even a more painful stomachache, like when you have a stomach virus

Along with menstrual cramps, some women also experience:

  • diarrhea or loose bowel movements
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • bloating
  • vomiting
  • headaches

Cramps can be uncomfortable or even painful, but they shouldn’t keep you home from school or work. That level of pain or discomfort is not typical, and is something you should see your doctor about.

Some cramping with your period is normal and nothing to worry about. Talk to your doctor if:

  • your cramps interfere with your life or daily activities
  • your cramps get worse after the first few days of your period
  • you’re over the age of 25 and suddenly start having cramping, or your periods seem more painful than usual

Your doctor will likely do a pelvic exam to see if there’s any underlying cause for the cramping. You should also call your doctor if you’re having cramping at other times outside of your period.

You can try the following remedies to lessen your cramps:

  • light exercise
  • heating pads
  • relaxation
  • over-the-counter pain relievers

If the remedies mentioned above aren’t effective, your doctor may prescribe oral contraceptives. These have been shown to reduce menstrual cramps.

Remember, you don’t have to suffer in silence. There are treatments and ways to manage period cramps, no matter the underlying cause.