Try These 5 Natural Methods to Ease Menstrual Cramps

Menstrual cramps are nearly every woman’s monthly ordeal. The good news is while they are not entirely unavoidable, there are ways to ease them naturally.

Woman lies in bed with menstrual cramps holding a heating pad over her abdomen

Every one in ten women experiences menstrual cramps so painful that it interrupts her daily life. If you experience menstrual pain, also known clinically as dysmenorrhoea, you’re likely not surprised by this statistic. The pain can be so debilitating for some women that it forces them to take a day off to rest. 

Some physicians and gynaecologists recommend taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen or intervening hormonally with birth control pills. However, taking painkillers could lead to dyspepsia or even stomach ulcers. Birth control pills don’t work for everyone, especially if you want to conceive. 

Are there more natural ways to ease menstrual cramps? Fortunately, the answer is yes. Here’s why you get menstrual cramps and five natural methods to ease the pain effectively. 

Is It Normal to Have Painful Menstrual Cramps? 

Pain is a common side effect of menstruation. It’s only normal to a certain extent. Having intense cramping and irregular periods indicate your body isn’t in balance. If you experience cramps so painful, you can only lie down, then it’s worth visiting a gynaecologist. 

In women and girls without abnormalities in the pelvis and uterus, the cramping is referred to as primary dysmenorrhoea. Meanwhile, secondary dysmenorrhoea refers to menstrual cramps caused by one or more of the co-existing conditions below: 

  1. Endometriosis
  2. Uterine fibroids
  3. Adenomyosis
  4. Ovarian cysts or tumours
  5. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  6. Congenital abnormality in the uterus
  7. Pain due to an intrauterine contraception device (IUCD) 

Menstrual Cramps Explained by Traditional Chinese Medicine 

Menstrual cramps can be categorised into a few different types according to the cause and pathogenesis: 

Cold-coagulation Blood Stasis 

Common in women who consume cold food such as avocado, tofu, and soybeans excessively or are always exposed to a cold environment. 

Symptoms: Feeling cold and cramps in the lower abdomen; blood volume might be low; dark blood colour with blood clots; afraid of the cold; cold hands and feet. 

Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis 

Common in women who are stressed out, depressed, always stay up late and are impatient. 

Symptoms: Bloating in the lower abdomen, tenderness, pain in breast or nipples, delayed or prolonged periods, dark blood colour with blood clots. 

Damp-Heat 

Women with Damp-Heat syndrome might have more vaginal discharge that is sticky and yellowish. 

Symptoms: Cramps in the lower abdomen which might be accompanied by a bearing down feeling and back pain; high blood volume, prolonged periods, sticky blood with blood clots, afraid of heat, sweats easily. 

Kidney Deficiency  

Common in women who always stay up late, are overworked, and have excessive sex. 

Symptoms: Cramps occur from the third or fourth day or even after a period; low blood volume, pinkish blood, back pain, dizziness, tinnitus, and vaginal dryness. 

Deficiency in Qi and Blood 

Similar to the symptoms of Kidney Deficiency. Might be accompanied by tiredness, insomnia, being afraid of the cold. 

Natural Remedies to Keep Menstrual Cramps at Bay 

A small pile of different types of dried Chinese herbs next to a bowl full of herbal soup
Many Chinese medicine herbal formulations are known to work well in easing menstrual cramps.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), menstrual cramps are understood to be caused by the poor circulation of blood and qi (vital life force). “It is okay to feel a little pain and discomfort in your abdominal area during your period. But if severe cramps are affecting your daily life, you shouldn’t neglect this problem,” TCM Physician Ho Li Ying advises.

When working with a TCM physician to address painful menstrual cramps, a combination of herbs, acupuncture, and lifestyle changes are usually in order.

1. Herbal medicine 

Several TCM herbal formulations have been used for hundreds of years to address menstrual pain, including cramps.

Depending on your body constitution and specific menstrual pain syndrome, your TCM physician will prescribe the appropriate herbal formulation. Herbs such as Angelica sinensis (dang gui, 当归), white peony root (bai shao, 白芍), Szechuan lovage rhizome (chuan xiong, 川芎), motherwort (yi mu cao, 益母草), and Cyperus rotundus (xiang fu, 香附) are prescribed for relieving period cramps. 

Bak Foong pills (bai feng wan, 白凤丸) are a well-known and studied formulation that helps promote the uterus’s relaxation in animal models, according to a 2013 study published in Cell Biology International. Other studies also confirm that ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, and fennel, usually found in these formulations, have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties that help with pain due to menstrual cramps. 

2. Acupuncture and acupressure  

Getting an acupuncture session could also do well to ease your pain. Numerous studies have shown this core modality of TCM to reduce chronic pain. A 2018 meta-analytical study in Medicine demonstrated that acupuncture reduced menstrual pain better than painkillers.

While waiting for your acupuncture appointment, you can also find mild and temporary relief by massaging acupoints yourself. This practice is referred to as acupressure. A few points to try are tai chong (LR3, 太沖), san yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交), and yin ling quan (SP9, 阴陵泉).

3. Balanced nutrition and exercise 

Physician Ho also shares that aside from being good for overall health, eating a balanced nutrition-dense diet and regular exercising can help reduce pain intensity due to menstrual cramps. “Make a habit of going to bed before 11pm, having a work-life balance, eating healthy and exercising regularly,” she reminds. 

In 2014, the European Journal of Experimental Biology published a research project that looked at 30 women who engaged in eight weeks of aerobic training. It found that their symptoms of menstrual pain subsided because of their physical activity. The researchers believed this was due to better blood circulation to the uterus and the release of endorphins during exercise. You don’t need to exercise vigorously – even yoga has been shown to relieve menstrual cramps. 

4. Relaxation  

“It is also highly advisable to find relaxing methods that help you relieve stress and negative emotions,” recommends Physician Ho. A randomised blind clinical study of Egyptian nursing students with primary dysmenorrhoea published in 2020 demonstrated that aromatherapy massage successfully reduced pain due to menstrual cramps for the study subjects. The researchers attributed this to the effect of the essential oils’ aromatic compounds on the limbic system. 

5. Soothing warmth

Woman looks at a glass of cold drink in her hand with a concerned expression
Cold foods and drinks can worsen menstrual cramps for some women.

Heat therapy is also recommended both in Western medicine and TCM. Many of us already know instinctively that applying warmth to the belly, such as by using heating pads, a hot water bottle, or a warm towel, can have a soothing effect to help alleviate painful menstrual cramps.

“In TCM, women should avoid consuming cold foods about a week before their period and soak their legs in warm water to improve qi and blood circulation”, Physician Ho adds. 

Studies have shown that heating pads, as well as topical heat patches, tend to work better at relieving menstrual cramps than painkillers. 

Despite the general perception of menstrual cramps as an inescapable fact of life for many women, there are tried and true natural methods to help ease the pain. While over-the-counter painkillers or synthetic hormonal interventions are options, they are not the only ones. There is already a lot of research supporting the efficacy of these natural methods, in addition to thousands of years of wisdom in ancient holistic medicine.

References

  1. MyHEALTH, Ministry of Health, Malaysia. 2019. Menstrual Pain. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  2. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2020. The Effect of Aromatherapy Abdominal Massage on Alleviating Menstrual Pain in Nursing Students: A Prospective Randomized Cross-Over Study. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  3. Better Health, Department of Health, Government of Victoria, Australia. Menstrual cycle. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  4. National Health Service (NHS), United Kingdom. 2019. Period pain. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  5. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Dysmenorrhea. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  6. Cell Biology International. 2013. Traditional Chinese medicine Bak Foong Pills alters uterine quiescence – Possible role in alleviation of dysmenorrhoeal symptoms. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  7. Journal of International Medical Research. 2020. Efficacy of herbal medicine (cinnamon/fennel/ginger) for primary dysmenorrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  8. Medicine. 2018. The efficacy and safety of acupuncture in women with primary dysmenorrhea. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  9. Journal of Pain. 2017. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  10. European Journal of Experimental Biology. 2014. The effect of 8 weeks of aerobic training on primary dysmenorrhea. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  11. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2017. Effect of yoga on the menstrual pain, physical fitness, and quality of life of young women with primary dysmenorrhea. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  12. Scientific Reports, Nature.com. 2018. Heat therapy for primary dysmenorrhea: A systematic review and meta-analysis of its effects on pain relief and quality of life. [Accessed 28 August 2022]
  13. 13 Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. 2015. Are Topical Heat Patches More Effective at Relieving Pain Associated With Dysmenorrhea Than OTC NSAIDs (Ibuprofen 400 mg PO Q8h or Acetaminophen 500 mg PO Q6h) in Menstruating Women 18 and Over? [Accessed 28 August 2022]

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