Period pain is the absolute worst. But is there anything more frustrating than having period pain but no actual period? We think not.
Although cramps are most closely associated with periods, menstruation isn't the only reason why you might get pain that feels like period pain, but is in fact a sign of something else altogether.
If you're experiencing aches and pains in your pelvic area, they might be a sign that your body is trying to alert you to an underlying medical condition or health issue, so it's important that you don't ignore them.
Here Dr. Patricia Zabala, from the gynaecology and assisted reproduction centre Institut Marques, details five common medical conditions where cramps is a symptom.
Endometriosis is a medical condition which occurs when the tissue lining a woman's uterus grows in other areas of the body, such as the fallopian tubes, ovaries, or inside the stomach. This tissue still goes through the menstrual process, but unlike a normal period, this blood has no way to escape. Endometriosis entered the broader public consciousness when Lena Dunham revealed that she was suffering from the condition.
"Pelvic pain is the main symptom of endometriosis," says Dr. Zabala. "Many people with the condition will experience extremely painful and, in some cases, incapacitating cramps during their period. They may also experience cramping throughout the whole menstrual cycle. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for endometriosis. However, there are a number of ways in which patients can manage their symptoms effectively—through lifestyle changes and surgical treatments."
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system which causes a range of symptoms in the gut, including stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. IBS often causes the muscles in the gut to contract more than is necessary for normal bowel movement. This can then lead to lower abdominal pain and cramping. "There’s no single treatment or diet that works for sufferers of IBS, but lifestyle changes such as getting plenty of exercise, taking probiotics and cooking homemade meals with fresh ingredients, can help relieve symptoms," says Dr. Zabala.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
You might not have heard of it before, but Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive organs. It is usually a sign that you have a sexually transmitted disease, such chlamydia or gonorrhoea.
"Stomach cramps are a primary symptom of PID," says Dr. Zabala. "The pain can be mild or severe, depending on the seriousness of the disease. Other symptoms include fever, smelly discharge, pain or bleeding during sex, and a burning sensation during urination."
The good news is that if it's diagnosed early, PID can be treated with a short course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. That means it's really important to—you guessed it—stop putting off booking that doctor's appointment and see your doctor ASAP. "To ensure the infection clears, it's important that you complete the entire course of any antibiotics you're prescribed and avoid having sex—your recent sexual partners should also be tested and treated too," advises Dr. Zabala.
We often think of pregnancy as being "period free," so it's surprising that cramping is a common symptom during the early stages pregnancy. "Once a woman's body starts producing pregnancy hormones their periods will stop. However, some women who are pregnant can still experience light bleeding and cramps at the time their period would be due," says Dr. Zabala. "This cramping typically occurs when the uterus expands, causing the ligaments and muscles that support it to stretch." Cramping during pregnancy is usually very innocent but if they are severe or accompanied by bleeding or dizziness, see a doctor—it could be a sign of a more serious underlying issue.
"Stress can affect the part of the brain which is responsible for producing hormones, and any change in hormones can alter the frequency and duration of the menstrual cycle, increasing the cramping pain you feel, or making it stop altogether," explains Dr. Zabala. If you feel too stressed, try coping mechanisms including breathing exercises and physical activity, but if you don't feel able to manage your stress levels yourself, speak to your doctor. "They may be able to recommend a more serious course of action—such as therapy or medication. I strongly recommend acupuncture and meditation in order to manage the stress."
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.