Cramps are a common problem during menstruation, but periods are not the only thing that can cause aches and pains in the stomach or pelvic area.
While some people experience light cramps and a feeling of heaviness during and just before their period, others can experience severe pain or pain that occurs at different times during the menstrual cycle.
In this article, learn about causes of cramps and their associated symptoms, as well as when to speak to a doctor.
Pelvic pain during a period is called dysmenorrhea. Several health conditions can cause cramps that may feel like dysmenorrhea, but without the period.
Possible causes and other symptoms of having cramps without a period include:
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
PID is an infection of the female reproductive organs. It can be a complication of some sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, but can also occur due to other types of infections.
As well as stomach cramps, the symptoms of PID can include:
- foul-smelling discharge
- pain or bleeding during sex
- burning during urination
- bleeding between periods
Endometriosis is a condition that causes tissue that is similar to the tissue that lines the uterus to grow in other locations in the body.
This tissue responds to hormones, breaking down and bleeding in the same way as the tissue in the uterus. As it cannot leave the body through the vagina, endometrial tissue can form lesions and cause pain and swelling.
Some people with endometriosis experience symptoms during their period, while others may experience symptoms throughout the entire menstrual cycle.
Uterine fibroids are small, non-cancerous tumors that grow in or on the uterine walls. Many people have fibroids and do not experience any symptoms. However, they can also cause bleeding and cramps, even when a person is not on their period.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Up to 20 percent of adults in the United States have IBS, with women and those under the age of 50 being more likely to have the condition.
IBS can cause cramps and pain around the stomach and pelvis. There is no cure for IBS, but people can manage the symptoms with dietary changes and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
Other symptoms of IBS include:
- not feeling empty after a bowel movement
- alternating between diarrhea and constipation
- mucus in the stool
- stomach swelling or bloating
- discomfort in the upper abdomen
- feeling uncomfortably full or nauseated after eating
The most common types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBD causes inflammation in the digestive system and stops it from absorbing essential nutrients. It is a long-term condition that usually requires ongoing treatment.
IBD can cause severe pain and cramps in the stomach, as well as:
- loss of appetite
- rectal bleeding
- joint pain
- skin problems, such as rashes
As well as stomach cramps, lactose intolerance can cause:
Symptoms usually appear between 30 minutes and 2 hours after consuming lactose.
Indigestion, which is also called dyspepsia, can also cause stomach cramps. Indigestion is a general term that describes a group of symptoms that affect the digestive system, including:
- pain, burning, or discomfort in the upper abdomen
- feeling full too soon while eating a meal
- feeling too full after eating
Around 25 percent of people in the U.S. experience indigestion every year. If a person has indigestion regularly over the course of weeks or months, it may be a sign of another health condition.
Cramping can sometimes be one of the earliest signs of pregnancy. When the embryo implants in the womb sometime between 6 and 12 days after conception, a person may experience light bleeding or spotting. They may also have mild cramps.
Other early signs of pregnancy include:
Anyone experiencing frequent cramps outside of their period should speak to a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Early diagnosis and treatment of PID are essential, as damage to the reproductive system may be irreversible and can cause long-term complications.
If a doctor thinks a person may have endometriosis or uterine fibroids, they may refer them to a gynecologist. The gynecologist can do a variety of tests to diagnose these conditions, including a physical exam, an ultrasound, or a laparoscopy.
People can usually manage the symptoms of IBS with dietary and lifestyle changes. However, those with IBD may need long-term treatment to manage the symptoms and prevent complications, such as nutritional deficiencies.
Anyone who thinks they may be lactose intolerant can try avoiding dairy to see if their symptoms improve.
If a person has indigestion that lasts longer than 2 weeks, it is best to speak to a doctor. Anyone who has indigestion accompanied by any of the following symptoms should seek medical attention right away:
- stools that are black and tarlike
- blood in vomit
- difficult or painful swallowing
- frequent vomiting
- unexplained weight loss
- pain in the chest, jaw, neck, or arm
- shortness of breath
- yellowing of the eyes or skin
If a person has taken a home pregnancy test and received a positive result, they should speak to a doctor for confirmation.