Some people can breeze through their periods unscathed (#blessed). And then there are the rest of us.
Pain accompanying periods is pretty typical. In fact, 84% of people who menstruate experience some type of pain. However, period pain affects people on a spectrum. About half of people don’t experience cramping at a level that requires treatment. The other half of people (55%) need to take medication to manage their pain (usually an NSAID) and 32% of people experience pain so severe that it causes them to miss work, school, or social events. Period pain is actually the number one cause of repeated school absence in teenage girls.
While there are no objective criteria for what classifies period pain as normal or abnormal, the medical term for pain during your period (also known as cramps) is dysmenorrhea. Period pain can become a problem when it interferes with your normal daily functioning.
If you suffer from severe cramping each month, here are some evidence-based suggestions that could help bring some relief.
First...Things that could be making your periods worse:
There are some known risk factors that are associated with more painful periods. Some of these factors are outside of your control. You may experience worse cramping if you had your first period at an earlier age, have a very heavy flow during your period, and/or have not yet had a child.
Then there are a few risk factors that we can modify. Smoking has been shown to make period pain worse. Reducing or quitting smoking could help ease menstrual pain. Additionally, having a very low body weight or BMI is associated with increased period pain.
The Here and Now: Quick fixes for your darkest hours…
So you’re bleeding and just looking for a way to feel less crappy. Here are some ideas.
Medicate with NSAIDs
NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are pain-relievers that have been shown to effectively reduce period pain. NSAIDs include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. If you take the recommended dose before the onset of actual cramping, they may be more effective at preventing pain.
Apply Topical Heat
A 2001 clinical study confirmed that applying a heat source to your aching tummy is an effective method for reducing period pain. Combining topical heat with an NSAID medication works even better than either approach alone. While NSAIDs help most if taken before cramps begin, topical heat can be very soothing if the pain has already set in. You can use heating pads or adhesive heating patches that are created for cramp relief.
Exercise If It Works For You
Exercise is an often-suggested remedy for cramps. Surprisingly, there is not too much research that shows the connection between exercise and reduced cramps. However, exercise is typically a positive health choice and perhaps worth a try if you’re feeling up to it. General wisdom holds that exercise releases mood-lifting endorphins and increases blood circulation and oxygen in your body which can help with bloating, cramping, and headaches. During your period, try a gentle activity like walking, running (as long as it’s comfortable), yoga, or weight lifting to get your blood moving.
If you have bad cramps with almost every period, here are some strategies for long-term pain management.
Oral Contraceptives (Birth Control Pills)
In addition to protecting against pregnancy, birth control pills can help regulate when and how long your periods will be. They also tend to make periods lighter, shorter, and less painful. People respond differently to oral contraceptives, so if you choose this method, keep an eye on whether it’s doing what you want it to do for your body. You can get a prescription for birth control from a doctor, nurse, or from a health clinic like Planned Parenthood. There are also birth control prescription options available online.
Hormonal IUDs are another birth control method that can reduce menstrual cramping over time. In one study, the percentage of women who experienced cramping during their periods was reduced from 60% to 29% after using a hormonal IUD for three years. Take note that the opposite is true of the copper IUD which can cause increased cramping during menstruation. Depending on where you live you can have an IUD inserted at your gynecologist’s office or at a local clinic like Planned Parenthood.
A few studies have indicated that certain supplements have the potential to reduce menstrual cramps. One study showed decreased cramping with a daily Thiamine supplement (100 mg). Another showed decreased pain in participants who took Vitamin E (200 IU) twice daily in the week before their periods. In yet another study, participants showed reduced pain after taking daily fish oil supplements (Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat).
If you prefer natural or alternative therapies, one study (with an admittedly low number of just 43 participants) found that 90% of people who received acupuncture to treat dysmenorrhea noticed a reduction in period pain. Additionally, these participants reduced their use of pain-relief medication for treating cramps by 41%.
If Nothing Helps...
If you’ve tried the suggestions above and you’re still experiencing severe cramping, you should speak with a gynecologist who can help create a more individualized plan to tackle your period pain.
In addition to normal cramping, there are other causes of severe pelvic pain. For example, endometriosis is caused by uterine tissue growing outside the uterus. It is associated with intense pelvic pain during menstruation but also can cause pain throughout the month as well as during intercourse and urination. This is a condition that can be treated effectively by a doctor, especially when diagnosed earlier on.
Remember, each body is different, so experiment with what brings you the most comfort during your period. The above are some tried and true methods, but you might have different remedies as part of your period routine like drinking a certain tea, aromatherapy, eating nourishing foods, or just distracting yourself with Netflix. If it works for you, trust in that and go with the flow.
Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman