Can Cramps Be As Painful As A Heart Attack?

by Kate Hofmann

You’ll get a variety of answers from menstruators about what their period cramps feel like. Most of those answers boil down to some type of ridiculous pain that can lead those who don’t menstruate to think they’re exaggerating. For years we’ve all heard that period cramps can’t be that bad or that there are a plethora of worse things.

If you’re rolling your eyes, I’ll wait until you're done. Are we good?

Great, now I can tell you why those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

Researchers at the University College London have ruled that period cramps can be as painful as a heart attack. While this probably isn’t the best unit of measurement to classify if you should take a heart attack seriously or not, it does give menstruators a bit of catharsis to know their pain isn’t all in their head. Gynecologists have even likened the experience of menstrual cramps to cutting off an appendage without sedation or anesthesia.

These analogies can be especially validating for those of us who are forced to keep going even when our period symptoms are at their worst. Many of us go to school, work, take care of children, and continue to manage our lives, even while our cramps are running rampant. While we can’t blame those who have never experienced period cramps for not understanding how it feels, we can question whether or not they have a right to be telling us how bad our pain actually is.

Doctors across the board claim that those who don’t menstruate inaccurately measure the pain that menstruators may experience. Some people equate it to getting kicked in the groin, but that has been disputed by those who experience extremely painful cramps. Not to mention, not every period is the same.

While some individuals may have lighter cramps, those who have heavier flows or suffer from period-related issues may find their cramps come with other symptoms that make them unbearable. Period cramps can often be accompanied by nausea, fatigue, and cramping in other areas of the body, making it difficult to function as you normally would. Many individuals have cramps that aren’t isolated to the pelvic region but radiate to the lower back and through the legs.

Of course, this affects typical performance, but many of us are accustomed to the pain and continue as normal. Period symptoms are often not a valid excuse to call in sick to work or miss school because it happens every month. Unfortunately, this thinking belittles the pain that menstruators experience, often without understanding what it feels like, and enforces a no-win situation for the menstruating individual.

There are even groups of non-menstruators that believe those with periods are faking their symptoms to be lazy. A recent trend has been combatting this stigma by allowing those who don’t experience period symptoms to know exactly how it feels for those with moderate to severe period cramps. There are machines that deliver electric waves that simulate the pain of period cramps and even childbirth contractions. The sticky pads of the muscle stimulator are placed on the abdomen, and the device is turned up to different modes from low to high. Most individuals who test out these machines will tap out after one or two, claiming the shocks are too severe. Menstruators will then test the product and show that they can handle higher shock levels because their period cramps are either on par or worse in some cases. While this can only give non-menstruators a small taste of what it is like to live with period cramping, it is the best example to show what most of us go through every month.

To boil down the pain many menstruators experience, without knowing what it feels like, further stigmatizes periods and those who have them. So while knowing that period cramps can be as painful as a heart attack may not change the minds of many, it can certainly be validating to know that science is at least on the menstruator’s side.