“In general, cramps are caused by the release of prostaglandins by the uterus,” Minkin explains.
Here’s how it goes down:
- During your flow, your body releases prostaglandins, which are chemicals linked to pain and inflammation.
- The prostaglandins trigger uterus contractions, which help your uterus shed its lining. (Predictably, prostaglandins also activate the childbirth sequence.)
- Prostaglandins keep popping while the lining and blood flow out, until your period is finished. Some people’s prostaglandin levels get super high, which leads to… super cramps.
Notice what’s missing from the cramp equation? Your vagina.
“Cramps are arising from the uterus, and the tampon is sitting in the vagina,” Minkin says. There’s no real link between the two.
Nope. Seriously, no matter what your roommate, your cousin, or Dr. Google tells you, there’s no scientific evidence that tampons make cramps worse. Again, period cramps originate in your uterus, and tampons sit in your vag.
In some cases, tampons can contribute to pelvic pain. But not all pelvic pain = period cramps.
“Women can have vaginal issues — such as vulvodynia or vaginismus — and indeed, these women probably wouldn’t feel good having a tampon in their vaginas,” Minkin says.
Here are some situations when a tampon *might* trigger pain:
- Vulvodynia. You might be experiencing vulvodynia if you have burning or irritation around your clitoris, your outer and inner labia, or even the skin surrounding your vagina or urethra. In this case, tampons could make nerve or skin pain worse.
- Vaginismus. With vaginismus, your pelvic muscles clench involuntarily. This condition can make sex very painful. It also means tampons, menstrual cups, and period discs are probably a no-go.
- Endometriosis. If you have endometriosis, uterine cells grow outside your uterus, which can cause inflammation, pain, and scarring. Depending on the location of the growth and the extent of your condition, sex and tampon insertion could become very painful.
- Using the wrong size tampon. Super-plus tampons won’t trigger cramps, but they might be a literal pain to insert. If you can feel your tampon once it’s inside — or if it hurts to remove because the cotton sticks to your vaginal walls — it’s time to size down.
Minkin has several suggestions for banishing cramps. She says the best way to beat the pain is to stop it at the source: Block excess prostaglandins with over-the-counter (OTC) “prostaglandin synthetases inhibitor” meds like ibuprofen or Aleve.
“The trick is to take your [pain relievers] early so that the uterus doesn’t make more prostaglandins,” she says. “Another excellent way to help is to use a combination hormonal contraceptive, like a birth control pill or ring, because those work by blocking ovulation. And when you ovulate, you make more prostaglandin.”
A few more tips:
- Grab a heating pad. Applying heat can soothe your muscles and bring sweet, sweet relief.
- Chill out. Some research from 2010 suggests stress can worsen PMS and period cramps. What better excuse to light some candles, soak in a warm bath, and chill out to some tunes?
- Exercise. “In general, women who exercise regularly have less menstrual pain… so exercise, exercise, exercise — it’s good for just about everything!” Minkin says.
Don’t suffer in silence. If you think there’s something funky with your flow or pain levels, talk with a healthcare professional.
If you’re doubling over in pain despite taking OTC meds and using hormonal birth control, Minkin says it’s time to see a doctor.
Call and make an appointment if:
- your cramps are so bad they interfere with daily activities
- you’re getting severe cramps even after your period
- your period pain gets suddenly worse than it’s ever been
Debilitating cramps could indicate these health probs: