As many as 50% women suffer from painful menstrual cramps. One study done by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) revealed that 10% of women experience such severe discomfort that it actually disrupts their routine. Here’s how to alleviate the pain—and when to call the doctor.
1. Observe the pattern.
There are two types of menstrual cramps. Primary dysmenorrhea (caused by the prostaglandins that contract the uterus during a regular menstrual cycle) usually happens to people who haven’t had kids. It’s uncomfortable, but manageable, and occurs only on the first or second day of your period. It rarely happens after you’ve had a full-time pregnancy.
Secondary dysmenorrhea, on the other hand, is more severe and can last throughout your period. You need to report this to your oby-gynecologist, because it can be a symptom of endometriosis, uterine fibroid tumors, or other problems with the reproductive system.
2. Load up on fiber.
Heavy, painful periods can be a side-effect of having really high levels of estrogen. Fiber helps to cleanse your body of excess hormones. Some of the best sources of fiber are whole grain food (like breads, pastas, and cereal), beans, avocados, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichokes.
3. Take your supplements.
Research shows that some vitamins and minerals can help lower the intensity of cramps, bloating and other menstrual discomfort. These include Vitamin E (which is also great for the skin!), thiamine, Omega-3, zinc and calcium.
4. Read the label.
Could your shampoo be making your menstrual cramps worse? Recent studies show that your cramps aren’t caused by estrogen, but substancesthat closely resemble it (estrogen wanna-bes, so to speak): xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens. These chemicals are sometimes used in making lotions, shampoos, laundry detergent, and herbal supplements.
5. Change your birth control.
Some birth control pills can help manage menstrual cramps. If you’d rather not take the pill, ask your oby-gynecologist to give you the hormones found in those pills through injection or a skin patch.
6. Curl up.
Severe menstrual cramps can have you bent over in pain. Don’t fight it. Lie down, but try this position: face-down on a pillow, your knees folded in, tucking in your tummy (and your butt in the air).
7. Get all warm and cozy.
A hot water bottle can help relax your muscles. Place directly on your abdomen. You can also find special aromatherapy pillows that can be heated in a microwave, and (as a bonus) release calming scents like mint and eucalyptus.
8. Get a massage.
Some spas offer special treatments designed specifically for managing menstrual pain. For example, Eastern treatments will try to improve blood flow and release the qi (or chi) in the pelvic region. You can also ask for a Swedish abdominal massage, which increases uterine circulation and lowers muscle tension.
Massage can increase blood flow, so it’s best to get these treatments five days to a week before you expect to get your period.
9. Put a little pressure.
Borrow a few techniques from Shiatsu, which heals parts of the body by applying firm and even pressure on corresponding pressure points.
To relieve abdominal cramps, press against the lower abdomen (your ‘sweet spot’ is four finger-widths underneath your bellybutton). Hold this for five counts, release, then repeat.
To ease uterine spasms, find the point near the top of your foot where the bones of your big toe and second toe meet. Rub with gentle, but steady circular movements. T
To improve blood flow, press against the inner thigh about two inches above the knee.
10. Get an acupressure treatment.
If the self-shiatsu treatment isn’t enough, head for a spa and ask for acupressure on your foot and calf (which is linked by energy pathways to the pelvis). Your therapist will look for tender spots along the side of the heel and Achilles tendon.
11. Breathe in healing scents.
Some aromatherapy oils are particular effective for relaxing both cramped muscles and the inevitable headache from fighting constant spasms of pain. Try lavender, chamomile, rosemary, clary sage, ginger, marjoram, and cypress.
12. Stock up on pain relievers.
The last thing you want to do in the middle of a bad attack of cramps is to commute to the nearest drugstore. Be prepared. Stock your medicine cabinets with non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs). Ibupofren and naproxen are particularly effective for easing menstrual pain and managing heavy bleeding. For milder cramps, you can take aspirin. For severe cramps that no meds seems to alleviate, ask your doctor for prescription NSAIDs.
13. Get on a regular exercise routine.
Exercise boosts your beta-endorphin levels. These are your body’s natural pain-management hormones. (They also improve your mood, which also takes a dip during your period.)
14. Cut back on salt and sugar before your period.
Yes, we know that PMS often triggers cravings for sweet and salty food, but these can aggravate cramps.
15. Trade coffee for pineapple juice.
While no studies have successfully linked caffeine intake with menstrual cramps, many women notice that the pain gets worse if they’ve drunk a lot of coffee or soda right before or during their period. If you really want a drink, reach for fresh pineapple juice. Pineapples contain bromelain, an enzyme that helps relax muscles and reduce cramping.