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Gain Control Over Your Menstrual Cramps: The Complete Guide

There is nothing more natural than menstruation. It happens every month without fail, but it isn’t easy; more than one-half of women who have periods experience some pain every month.

Estimates suggest that roughly 25-50% of women experience menstruation pain, 75% of teenage girls experience menstruation pain, and between 5% and 20% report pain so severe that they cannot carry on with their normal daily life. 

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Menstrual pain can make it hard to live a normal life; painful menstruation is the leading cause of lost time from work and school for women in their teens and twenties.

Despite this, friends, family and doctors can sometimes struggle to take period pain seriously. For many years the medical world considered period pain to be minor, and often doctors would dismiss the pain.

However, you do not simply have to put up with the pain caused by your periods – there are many effective ways to relieve period pain. Often these methods are inexpensive and beneficial to your body, but despite this many women do not know about them.

No one should experience pain that can affect your day-to-day life. We look at 15 scientifically proven ways to relieve menstrual cramps – but first, we check out the science behind period pain.

What causes common menstrual cramps?

Dysmenorrhea is a medical term that means ‘painful or difficult periods’, and there are two types; primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is fairly common, with most women experiencing it.

Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by the release of a substance called prostaglandins from the uterus (which is a muscle) during menstruation. Prostaglandins help the uterus to contract, but sometimes it can contract too strongly. When this happens your uterus can press against nearby blood vessels, which cuts off the oxygen supply to the uterus’s muscle tissue, resulting in painful cramps.

What is secondary dysmenorrhea?

Secondary dysmenorrhea often develops later in women than primary dysmenorrhea, and it is often linked to other problems in the uterus.

For instance, it is often linked to endometriosis, which affects at least 5 million women in the United States. Many other women have endometriosis, but they are unaware, as they have no symptoms. Endometriosis is a condition that results in tissue from the uterus are found outside of its normal location, causing pain to the sufferer.

Secondary dysmenorrhea can be extremely difficult, as it couples period pain with another existing condition.

How to relieve period pain

1. Exercise

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Small studies have shown that exercise can help to relieve period pain, which may leave you thinking, “I can barely walk right now, never mind running!” However, brisk walking and jogging can help to relieve back and stomach pain.

Whenever you exercise, your body releases endorphins to counteract the prostaglandins, which will reduce your cramps and back pain. It can be hard to motivate yourself to get up and jog when you are in pain, but you should feel the pain start to decrease after only a few minutes of walking!

2. Cut out caffeine

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According to the Women’s Health Information website, caffeine can constrict blood vessels, which is one of the main causes of cramps. As caffeine is also a stimulant, it can exacerbate other symptoms of menstrual cramps, making you more exhausted, tense and anxious.

If you have severe menstrual cramps, try to cut out caffeine completely. If you love caffeine too much to say goodbye forever, avoid it whenever you are experiencing pain. This doesn’t just mean coffee; try to avoid caffeinated sofas, energy drinks, tea and chocolate.

3. Drink herbal tea

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Many health professionals and scientists have long raved about the benefits of herbal tea, and recent research has found that different herbal teas can relieve period pain and other symptoms.

For instance red raspberry lead tea may decrease bleeding, which would result in less cramping. Chamomile tea is filled with natural anti-inflammatory properties that help to reduce the prostaglandin, helping to relieve back pain and stomach pain. Cinnamon tea also contains anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties that ease menstrual cramp symptoms.

If your period pain is making it hard for you to sleep, try drinking a herbal tea before you go to bed to relieve your symptoms and help you sleep.

4. Use a TENS unit 

While scientists aren’t exactly sure how TENs units relieve period pain, the studies show that it works. A TENs unit is a small device that is worn against the skin. It delivers a small, painless electrical current to the part of your body that hurts, helping to reduce pain. While a TENs unit don’t actually alter how the uterus contracts, some experts believe that it may stimulate endorphin release or affect uterine blood flow. Other experts believe that the TENs unit stimulates your nerves in a way that slightly alters your pain perception.

While TENs units don’t appear to reduce pain for all women, they are fairly inexpensive and they have no risk of side effects.

5. Acupuncture

Recent reviews found that both acupuncture and acupressure are very effective at providing pain relief for primary dysmenorrhea – even more so than pharmacological treatments.

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that uses small needles in the skin to stimulate the body. There are many scientifically backed reasons why acupuncture relieves period pain; it increases nitric oxide levels, helping to relax the muscles. It also increases endorphins, reduces inflammation and stimulates the nerves.

6. Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a natural way to help reduce period pain. It is an antioxidant, which benefits your immune system and helps to form new blood cells. While scientists aren’t exactly sure why Vitamin E reduces period pain, they know it does; small studies show that women report reduced pain when using Vitamin E.

If you want to use Vitamin E to reduce your period pains, try taking 200 units once a day for 5 days. It is not recommended that you take more than 400 units a day.

7. Thiamine supplements

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Another supplement that is scientifically proven to help relieve menstruation pain is Thiamine supplements – also known as Vitamin B1. A 1996 study found that 87% of the participants were “cured” of their pain after taking 100mg a day for three months.

While it is impossible to cure period pain, it does appear that Thiamine supplements are a great way to relieve painful cramps and back ache. If you don’t see noticeable results after three months, it may be beneficial for you to try other methods on this list.

8. Fish oil capsules

A study has found that fish oil capsules help to significantly reduce menstrual cramps in women with moderate to severe dysmenorrhea. Interestingly the study also found that fish oil capsules are more effective than Ibuprofen at reducing menstrual cramps!

If you want to use fish oil capsules to reduce your period pain, try taking 6p a day, divided into two doses. These recommendations are based on three studies from 1996 and one from 2003.

9. Vitamin D

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Instead of finding a cure for painful periods, try preventing your periods from being painful. A study found that high doses of vitamin D3 lead to significantly reduced pain caused by menstrual cramps.

For the study, 40 women were split into two groups: one receiving a single oral dose of vitamin D3 and the other getting a placebo five days before the expected start of their menstrual periods. The women who received vitamin D3 reported a 41% drop in pain, while the women who received the placebos reported no change to their pain levels. Effective!

10. Yoga

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Yoga is one of the most effective ways you can combat mild to severe dysmenorrhea. Many studies have found that yoga reduces backache, one of the main symptoms of dysmenorrhea. As yoga integrates physical movement with mindful practices, you can reduce your pain with a double-pronged attack.

Being physically active encourages blood flow, which will help to relieve any physical symptoms including backache and stomach pains. The relaxed, mindfulness of yoga also helps with emotional distress, helping you to de-stress and relax.

11. Eat chocolate

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A pain study found that eating sweet food (the study used chocolate chip cookies) improved pain tolerance for women when compared to a savory food (black olives) and a neutral food (rice cakes). Funnily enough, the sweet food did not improve pain tolerance for men!

If you suffer from painful period cramps and you love to snack on chocolate, treat yourself to a bar of dark chocolate. It will help to reduce your symptoms, cheer you up and it has lots of other health benefits.

12. Aromatherapy

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Aromatherapy is very beneficial when it comes to painful menstrual cramps. Researchers looked at the effects of aromatherapy on women with painful periods. Participants received a 10-minute abdominal massage each day with essential oils in an almond oil base. They found a significant reduction in pain levels for the participants. It also reduced the duration of the pain from around 23 hours to around 18 hours, making this the ideal treatment for anyone who has long, painful periods.

If you want to have a relaxing aromatherapy night, light some candles and ask your partner or friend for a lower back massage with essential oils in an almond oil base.

13. Birth control pills

Birth control pills help to ease period pain because they the lining of the womb, reducing the amount of prostaglandin that your body release. This eases the contractions, as your uterus doesn’t need to move as much to shed away the lining. This also means your periods will generally be lighter and often shorter.

And birth control really works; around two thirds of women report that they significantly improve period pain. However, birth control doesn’t work for everyone and some women are unwilling to take tablets every day to reduce the pain.

14. Heat pads

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Heat pads are a very comforting way for you to reduce any symptoms of mild to severe dysmenorrhea. It has been proven that heat helps to relax the contracting muscles in your uterus, and there are many inexpensive heat pads that you can buy locally or on-line.  There are reusable heat pads, as well as plug-in electric ones. You can even make your own heat pad at home by filling a plastic bottle with hot water and wrapping it in a blanket before applying it to your back or stomach.

You can use heat in other ways to alleviate your pain, such as having a hot bath or enjoying a hot drink. Heat opens up your vessels and improves your blood flow, so you will feel the benefits whenever you apply heat to the painful area.

15. Have an orgasm          

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Sometimes we miss something when we are looking at natural and pharmaceutical cures for illnesses, we miss something out that is very beneficial – having an orgasm. Having an orgasm isn’t just fun; it also has many healing benefits that can help to relieve your period pain.

When you have an orgasm, your body releases natural chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, helping your muscles to relax and improving your mood. Endorphins are also a natural painkiller, which will help to minimize back and stomach pain. It also makes you feel sleepy – the perfect way to make sure your cramps don’t keep you up all night!

If you have tried any of these methods without success, try taking over-the-counter medicine to see if you find a noticeable reduction. If over-the-counter medicine is unhelpful or you notice that your pain is getting worse, make an appointment to speak to your gynecologist or your health care provider.  Your health care provider may decide that you need to take a test such as a pelvic ultrasound.

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References:

Gokhale LB. Curative treatment of primary (spasmodic) dysmenorrhoea. Indian J Med Res. April 1996. Vol 103. Page 227-31.

Marjoribanks J, Proctor M, Farquhar C, Derks RS. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2010; (1): CD001751.

Latthe PM, Champaneria, R, Khan KS. Dysmenorrhea. Clin Evid 2011; 2: 813.

Proctor M, Murphy PA, Pattison HM, Suckling JA, Farquhar C. Behavioural interventions for dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2007; (3): CD002248.

Wong CL, Farquhar C, Roberts H, Proctor M. Oral contraceptive pill for primary dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2009; (4): CD002120.

Jeffrey S Mannheimer. Eileen Whalen. Efficacy of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation in Dysmenorrhea. The Clinical Journal of Pain 1: 75-83. 1985.

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