(NaturalNews) Menstrual cramps actually produce changes in the brain similar to those produced by chronic pain, according to a study conducted by researchers from the National Yang-Ming University in Taipei, Taiwan, and published online in the journal Pain.
Previous research has shown that chronic pain can produce functional and structural changes throughout the entire nervous system. In the current study, the researchers sought to determine whether cyclic pain, such as that experienced by women in association with their menstrual periods, can also produce such changes.
The researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans on 32 women who reported experiencing severe menstrual pain and 32 women who did not experience severe pain. Approximately 20 to 90 percent of adolescent girls experience this pain, known as primary dysmenorrhea (PDM). The scans were conducted during the period surrounding ovulation (the periovulatory period), during which there is no pain.
No differences were seen between the two groups in overall nerve cell mass (known as gray matter), but the researchers did observe differences in gray matter in specific regions of the brain. The changes were most striking in the hypothalamus, which is known to play a critical role in regulating the menstrual cycle. Changes were also seen in areas of the brain that regulate pain transmission, pain modulation, higher sensory processing, endocrine function and emotion.
"Our results demonstrated that abnormal gray matter changes were present in PDM patients even in absence of pain," the researchers wrote. "This shows that not only sustained pain, but also cyclic occurring menstrual pain can result in longer-lasting central changes."
The researchers cautioned, however, that the pain may not be directly responsible for the changes observed in the brain. Other menstruation-related factors, such as hormones and changes in blood flow or spine/synapse density, might ultimately be responsible for the changes.