Ah, menstrual pain. There's nothing like it – and if it's bad, it's really really bad.
I have had my period for over 20 years and am still surprised by the intensity of my menstrual cramps almost every month. Spasms, menstrual pain – or primary dysmenorrhea, if you feel like it – are incredibly common.
Period pain affects daily life in 20 percent of women [Latthe P, et al. (2012). Dysmenorrhea. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0215/p386.html]. About 1 in 10 women are so in pain during their menses that they have to limit their activities to one to three days each month. [Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (201
That's one day a month (or more) that you simply have to write off because your uterine lining has decided to dandruff.
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to get rid of pain, usually fast. However, there are ways to relieve cramping, relieve pain, and possibly prevent cramping from getting worse.
"Period pain is often caused by prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that cause a contraction of the uterus," says Jolene Brighten, medical director at Rubus Health and author of "Beyond the Pill."
Although it appears that muscle contractions are causing the pain, it is the prostaglandins that actually take you to the city. The more prostaglandins in your body, the worse you feel during your period.
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize these body chemicals and relieve your pain, though they do not always bring you the quickest relief.
If you want to relieve pain naturally, there is some bad news. The Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health indicates that there are only two scientifically proven ways to relieve menstrual pain: birth control pills and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), including ibuprofen [Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (2016). Period pain: Overview. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279324/].
It does not mean that these are the only options for pain relief – they have only the best scientific background. Unfortunately, there are very few studies on remedies for severe menstrual pain that could explain why there are so few medically recommended solutions.
Contraception may be able to relieve symptoms if pain persists [Dmitrovic R, et al. (2012). Continuous compared with cyclic oral contraceptives for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea: A randomized controlled trial. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3631421/]. Of course it does not help at this moment if you are stuck with cramping pain on the couch, but the pill usually relieves the menstrual symptoms from the first month of use.
This does not always work – I still have had painful menstrual cramps and been on contraception for years – but it's worth asking your doctor.
If you're a ball of cramping, it's best to take some ibuprofen with a coffee hunter. There is evidence that 200 milligrams (mg) of ibuprofen plus 100 mg of caffeine (about a cup of coffee) are very effective in relieving acute pain [Derry S, et al. (2015). Single dose ibuprofen plus caffeine for acute postoperative pain in adults. https://www.cochrane.org/CD011509/SYMPT_single-dose-oral-ibuprofen-plus-caffeine-acute-postoperative-pain-adults].
If you're trying to fight convulsions, be sure to take an NSAID, not some painkiller. You need the anti-inflammatory properties of ibuprofen or naproxen (Aleve) to feel better. If you take Tylenol, you may have less headache, but you still have cramps.
If you are sensitive to NSAIDs or simply do not want to take over-the-counter pills, you still have options for relief.
If you want to completely eliminate medication, heat treatment is your best bet.
Whether you take a hot water bottle, a heat pad or a bath, the heat helps your muscles relax and relieves pain. Lying on the aching stomach with something warm or relaxing in the tub can also reduce your overall stress.
While there is not much research into why heated patches work, there's no harm in doing something that feels comfortable and relaxing – especially in the worst time of your time.
"When I have cramps, I like to jog," nobody said – probably ever . For most of us, sport is the last resort when you are in pain – but it can really help.
"Training helps lower prostaglandin levels and regulate digestion," says Elizabeth Trattner, licensed acupuncturist. Since prostaglandins cause a major part of the pain in the first place, you will feel better with everything that reduces prostaglandins. In addition, the training releases endorphins in the body, which improves your mood.
Trattner says that this does not mean that you go into a bootcamp class when you are in extreme pain. Instead, she recommends making some exercise before your period to relieve cramps before they begin. During your period (if you are not in pain), try to walk or do some light activity just to thwart these prostaglandins before they cause havoc.
"In My Clinical Practice, I Recommend Women Seek 300 mg of Magnesium Bysglicinate per night to relieve menstrual cramps," says Brighten. She says that magnesium can effectively lower prostaglandins and relieve pain.
Unfortunately, you can not just take magnesium and feel better in a few minutes. But a nocturnal dose often minimizes cramping during your period.
My dream diet is a complete stereotype – five days nothing but pizza, chocolate and ice cream. Unfortunately, this is the worst way to eat if you want to relieve menstrual pain. Processed and fried foods contain a high proportion of omega-6 fatty acids, which is not good.
"If our diet contains a high proportion of omega-6 fatty acids, we form stronger prostaglandins," says Brighten. "To counter this, you should take anti-inflammatory, omega-3 rich foods such as salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed." These help reduce inflammation, which in turn reduces dreaded prostaglandins and relieves pain.
Trattner recommends she keep a healthy, high-fiber diet for the last two weeks of her cycle. Sure, that means avoiding junk food when you want it most, but it can reduce the severity of cramping and pain as soon as your period is finally out in town.
If you've tried baths, workouts and fiber, and you need some hardcore food, you have a few more unusual ways to try it.
Connecting your stomach to a shock machine may not sound like fun, but that's the basic principle of a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Machine (TENS). You stick a few small pads to your stomach and the machine sends electrical impulses to the muscles. This reduces the number of pain signals entering the brain, which relieves the pain.
It sounds a bit scary, but surprisingly mild. The UK National Health Service reports that there is not enough evidence to prove that the TENS machine relieves pain, although a small study found that TENS alleviates cramping [Proctor M, et al. (2002). Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation for primary dysmenorrhea. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002123].
Livia, a product claiming to eliminate pain during the period, is essentially a TENS unit. But as with many women's products, it is much more expensive! A Livia kit costs $ 149, while an Amazon TENS device costs only $ 27. Before you start shocking your stomach, you should consult your doctor.
There is growing evidence that cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive constituent of marijuana, is a potent anti-inflammatory agent [Nagarkatti P, et al. (2010). Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2828614/]. Studies on the drug were sparse, so there is not much scientific evidence for the effectiveness of CBD. However, there are numerous reports that CBD works. At least that's a funny fact that you can get rid of on your next quiz night.
The next time you visit the Red Witch, you should stock up on magnesium, ibuprofen, heat pads, wholesome food and exercise videos. While none of these remedies can completely relieve the common pain, they can provide much needed relief from the best hostility of women.