Why menstrual cramps happen
It’s common to feel discomfort around your abdomen, lower back, and thighs when you’re menstruating. During your period, the muscles of your womb contract and relax to help shed built-up lining. Sometimes you’ll experience cramps, which are your muscles at work. Some women and girls may experience nausea, vomiting, headaches, or diarrhea as well.
Doctors aren’t sure why some women experience painful menstruation and others don’t. But some factors that are associated with more intense pain include:
- having a heavy blood flow
- having your first child
- being under the age of 20, or just starting your period
- having an overproduction of or sensitivity to prostaglandins, a hormone that influences your womb
Other factors include growths in your womb, endometriosis (abnormal uterine tissue growth), and use of birth control.
For mild to temporary cramps, some home remedies can help provide relief. Read on for tips on getting fast relief and how to potentially lessen the pain during your next cycle.
relief, try …
1. Taking over-the-counter medications
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the primary over-the-counter form of pain relief recommended for menstrual pain and heavy menstrual bleeding. NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve, Naproxen). These drugs help lower your body’s production of prostaglandin. NSAIDs aren’t as effective as oral contraception, but they can help reduce pain.
2. Applying heat
Applying heat to your abdomen and lower back may relieve pain. A 2012 study focused on women 18 to 30 years old who had regular menstrual cycles found that a heat patch at 104°F (40°C) was as effective as ibuprofen.
If you don’t have a hot water bottle or heating pad, take a warm bath or use a hot towel. Or you can make your own heating pad:
- Cut and sew together two pieces of fabric, leaving a hole at the top.
- Fill with uncooked rice and sew up the hole.
- Microwave for a few minutes to the desired temperature. Don’t overheat!
- Let cool, if necessary. Or wrap your homemade pad in a towel to reduce heat transfer. Reuse as necessary.
You can also purchase a heating pad online.
3. Massaging with essential oils
Massage therapy for about 20 minutes can help reduce menstrual pain. One study looked at women with period pain caused by endometriosis. The researchers found that massages significantly reduced pain immediately and afterward. Massage therapy for menstruation involves pressing specific points while the therapist’s hands move around your abdomen, side, and back.
Watch this video for a tutorial on massaging for menstrual pain:
Adding essential oils for an aromatherapy style of massage may have additional benefits. A study divided 48 women experiencing menstrual pain into two groups: One group received a cream containing essential oils, while the other received a cream containing a synthetic fragrance. The group who used essential oils experienced a significant reduction in amount and duration of pain. The researchers used blend of lavender, clary sage, and marjoram oil in this study. You can buy a scented massage oil with similar ingredients or make your own.
You should always dilute your essential oil with a carrier oil (vegetable or nut oils like grapeseed or sweet almond oil). A safe concentration is one drop of essential oil per teaspoon of carrier oil.
4. Having an orgasm
While there are no clinical studies on the direct effect of orgasms on menstrual cramps, science suggests it may help. Vaginal orgasms involve your whole body, including your spinal cord, which signals the release of neurotransmitters. A vaginal orgasm can trigger your brain to release neurotransmitters like endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins can decrease pain perception.
Dr. Barry Komisaruk, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies the female orgasm, told the BBC, “Vaginal orgasms [are described] as being internal and involving the whole-body; that’s probably because the nerves that carry sensations from the clitoris are different from the nerves from the vagina.” His 1985 study with Dr. Beth Whipple was the first to find that vaginal self-stimulation doubled women’s tolerance for pain.
5. Avoiding these foods
During menstruation, it’s a good idea to avoid foods that cause bloating and water retention. Some of the biggest culprits include:
Reducing or cutting out these foods can help alleviate cramps and decrease tension. Instead, try soothing (caffeine-free) ginger or mint teas or hot water flavored with lemon. If you need a sugar fix, snack on fruits like strawberries or raspberries.
Herbs you can add
to your diet
These herbal remedies contain anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic compounds that experts believe can reduce the muscle contractions and swelling associated with menstrual pain.
|Herb or supplement||Dosage||Does it work?|
|chamomile tea||Sip two cups of tea per day a week before your period. You may benefit more if you drink it every month.||Drinking chamomile tea increases urinary levels of glycine, which helps relieve muscle spasms. Glycine also acts as a nerve relaxant.|
|fennel seeds||When your period starts, take 30 mgs of fennel extract four times a day for three days.||One study looked at girls 15 to 24 years old. The group that took the extract reported feeling relief. The placebo group reported none.|
|cinnamon||Take 420 mg of cinnamon capsules twice a day during the first three days of your period.||In 2015, women who took cinnamon capsules in a study reported less bleeding, pain, nausea, and vomiting compared to the placebo group.|
|ginger||Try grating a small piece of ginger into hot water for a warm cramp-relieving drink.||One study found that 250 mg of ginger powder four times a day for three days helped with pain relief. It also concluded ginger was as effective as ibuprofen.|
|pycnogenol||Take 60 mg of pycnogenol per day during your cycle. This can help with more moderate menstrual pain.||One study found that women who took 60 mg of pycnogenol per day during their cycle reported less pain. According to the study, the benefits increase as you take the pill and continue even after you stop.|
|dill||Try 1,000 mg of dill for five days, two days before your cycle.||A study concluded 1,000 mg dill was as effective for easing menstrual cramps as mefenamic acid, an over-the-counter drug for menstrual pain.|
Relief for premenstrual syndrome symptoms
Curcumin, a natural chemical in turmeric, may help with symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). One study looked at women who took two capsules of curcumin for seven days before their period and three days after. Participants reported significant reduction in PMS. If you want to give curcumin a try, check out this recipe by In Jennie’s Kitchen for turmeric tea. Curcumin supplements are also available online.
Always make sure you’re buying herbs and supplements from a reputable source as they aren’t regulated. While most of these herbal remedies have few side effects, check with your doctor before trying them. Some herbs may also cause unintended side effects, especially if you’re taking medication. Most of these herbs and supplements also don’t include specific instructions for menstrual periods. Your doctor may have more information on dosage recommendations.
How diet and
exercise can help in the long run
Maintaining a healthy diet and keeping up a regular exercise regime can go a long way to preventing menstrual pain. One study found significant differences between period pain in women who maintained a healthy lifestyle and those who didn’t. Read on for specific diet and exercise tips.
Generally, a diet geared toward decreasing menstrual pain should be high in minimally processed foods, fiber, and plants.
Give these foods a try:
- papaya (rich in vitamins)
- brown rice (contains vitamin B-6, which may reduce bloating)
- walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds (rich in manganese, which eases cramps)
- olive oil and broccoli (contain vitamin E)
- chicken, fish, and leafy green vegetables (contain iron, which is lost during menstruation)
- flaxseed (contains omega-3s with antioxidant properties, which reduce swelling and inflammation)
Boron: This mineral helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. It also reduces menstrual cramps: A study that looked at 113 university students found that boron reduced the intensity and length of menstrual pain. Foods with high concentration of boron include:
- peanut butter
You can also take boron supplements, if your diet doesn’t provide enough. However, you should consult your doctor before taking boron supplements.
Water: It sounds odd, but drinking water keeps your body from retaining water and helps to avoid painful bloating during menstruation. Warm or hot water is usually better for cramps, as hot liquids increase blood flow to your skin and may relax cramped muscles.
You can also eat water-based foods to increase your hydration, including:
- berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries)
Calcium: This mineral can help reduce muscle cramping during menstruation. The Mayo Clinic recommends 1,000 mg per day for women between the ages of 19 and 50. Foods high in calcium include:
- dairy products
- sesame seeds
- leafy green vegetables
Calcium is also available in supplement form. But speak to your doctor before taking supplements to find out if it’s safe for you.
The idea of exercise immediately before or during your period may not appeal to you. But exercise releases endorphins. Research suggests exercise is effective at reducing menstrual pain to the extent it may also eliminate or reduce the need for pain-relief medication. Moderate activity such as walking can be beneficial during your period in place of more strenuous activity.
Yoga is a gentle exercise that also releases endorphins and helps prevent or reduce menstrual symptoms. In one recent study, researchers found three different yoga poses — cobra, cat, and fish — significantly reduced intensity and duration of pain during menstruation.
Watch this video for a 15-minute yoga routine you can do during your period:
When to see a doctor
You should contact your doctor if you have severe pain and very heavy bleeding. See a doctor if:
- the pain consistently prevents you from doing day-to-day activities
- the pain worsens, or bleeding gets heavier, over time
- you’re over 25 and severe cramps are a new development
- over-the-counter medication doesn’t work
For severe cases, the best way to get treatment is for a doctor to diagnose the cause of your menstrual pain. If you’re interested in learning more ways to relieve painful menstruation, visit our Pain Relief Learning Center.
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