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Quick Dose: Beyond Cramps

Cramps. Cravings. You may expect them when it’s your “time of the month.” But, have you ever experienced joint pain? How about diarrhea?

“Every change your body experiences during menstruation is due to hormonal changes,” says Heather A. Cushing, MD, gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Your estrogen level drops, and your prostaglandin and progesterone levels increase. These hormonal changes affect people differently.”

Here other symptoms beyond cramps that you may experience while on your period.


Menstrual-related migraines typically occur a few days before your period begins. The culprit? Estrogen deficiency.

“Right before your period, your estrogen levels are at their lowest point,” says Dr. Cushing. “Some people are sensitive to the decrease in estrogen, and this triggers headaches. Estrogen has been linked to preventing pain.”

The fix? Hormonal birth control or an estrogen patch can help prevent period-induced migraines, as they replenish estrogen. Over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or migraine medications, also help with migraine pain. But the best antidote for a migraine is rest.

Joint Pain

Prostaglandin is needed for menstruation. It helps your body shed the lining of your uterus by causing contractions. (That’s why you get cramps.)

“Prostaglandin also facilitates the shedding of the lining of the uterus and prevents women from hemorrhaging,” says Dr. Cushing. “Higher levels of prostaglandin can also cause joint pain and muscle aches.”

The fix? Naproxen. It’s a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication that you can buy over the counter. It blocks the enzyme that helps make prostaglandin. When taken two to three days before your menstrual cycle, it can help prevent cramps and pain altogether. Taking a hot bath, or applying a hot compress to aching areas and joints, will also help alleviate pain.

Bathroom Woes

High prostaglandin and progesterone levels contribute to looser stool for the duration of your period.

“The same prostaglandin and progesterone receptors in the uterus that cause cramps also exist in the digestive tract to help move stool along,” says Dr. Cushing. “Fluid retention in the GI tract due to progesterone and prostaglandins may increase digestive activity.”

The fix? Hormonal birth control will modulate how much prostaglandin and progesterone your body produces, potentially sparing you time in the bathroom. Drinking plenty of fluids and sticking to bland foods will help with diarrhea.

Yeast Infections

Some people are more likely to get yeast infections while on their period.

“The pH level of the vagina changes when estrogen decreases, which may increase yeast levels and symptoms of itching,” says Dr. Cushing. “Usually, as the period comes to an end and the estrogen levels rise again, the pH levels return to the proper level and symptoms of itching will resolve.”

The fix? Dr. Cushing suggests waiting the duration of your period to see if the yeast infection clears on its own if the itching is not severe and is tolerable. If not, consult your gynecologist for next steps. Keep your vaginal area clean, and change your feminine hygiene products regularly to help prevent skin itching and irritation.


Your breasts may swell and feel tender, and you may experience transient bloating while on your period.

“Your weight may fluctuate up to 5 pounds when you’re menstruating,” says Dr. Cushing. “You may notice it in your breasts and abdomen, but some people even experience swelling in their extremities.”

Progesterone is at play again, with water retention causing engorgement throughout your body.

The fix? Get ahead of swelling and breast tenderness with naproxen or another pain reliever like ibuprofen. Taking these medications on a scheduled basis when you’re expecting your period will alleviate many of these symptoms and potentially even reduce menstrual bleeding. Don’t forget to keep drinking water.

Did you reach the end of this article with a question mark instead of a period? Consult your gynecologist for answers.

Gynecology at Northwestern Medicine