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Period pain relief

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 6 minutes read
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Some women have a feeling of uneasiness when they are expecting their period, as they anticipate that crampy feeling in the lower part of their tummy. They may experience period cramps or pain for 2 to 3 days of their menstrual bleeding, but it may last longer, or start in the days leading up to a period. It particularly affects those in their teens or 20s.

Thankfully for most women, period pain is mild, but for some it can be debilitating, causing them to miss school or work, and becoming a dreaded monthly affliction.

When period pain causes significant distress or negatively impacts your life, doctors call this dysmenorrhea. Many women suffer in silence, but it’s not something you need to put up with just because you’re a woman. There are ways to prevent this condition from disrupting your life. Let’s discuss the causes of period pain and some useful tips and remedies to help relieve it.

Doctor’s advice

Why do I get period pain?

Every month the womb (uterus) prepares for a potential pregnancy by making the lining thicker and increasing its blood supply. If pregnancy does not occur, the lining breaks down and a period ensues. It’s thought that this constant tissue generation, breakdown, and renewal process keeps the womb environment free from any build-up of bacteria, making it a sterile environment to keep you and any future baby healthy.

You will experience contractions as the womb starts to shed the thick lining, cutting off the blood supply so the tissue sloughs away. The contractions are what we call period pain and the shedding is menstrual bleeding. Prostaglandins help this shedding process – these are hormones that play a role in inflammation and bleeding, helping tissue to repair.

Too many prostaglandins are thought to increase period pain. It’s not known why some women produce more prostaglandins than others, but it’s thought to have a genetic component (you might want to ask your mother or grandmother about their period pain).

Other female hormones help to control the menstrual cycle, and these can also give you uncomfortable sensations along with period cramps. Some women experience bloating, appetite changes, breast tenderness, headaches, sadness, irritability, or tearfulness.

Which products will help with period cramps?

Understanding the cause of period pain can help us pick the right treatment. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can be an excellent choice, as they specifically target and block prostaglandins. Taken orally, they can relieve your period pain to allow you to get on with your day.

When should I start an NSAID?

Prostaglandins can accumulate in the days leading up to menstrual bleeding, so it’s a good preventative measure to start an NSAID a couple of days before you expect your period. A diary or app can help you keep track of your next period so you can prevent symptoms.

Who should avoid NSAIDs?

You should avoid NSAIDs if you have had stomach ulcers, you have NSAID-sensitive asthma, or if you have long-term kidney disease. You should avoid aspirin if you are under 16.

If your period pain is very mild, acetaminophen may be the best option for you. It is a mild painkiller, it’s considered safe, and it’s tolerated well.

Any drug-free options?

If period pain is disrupting your life, you will want to have a few remedies on hand. These tried and tested techniques can be used along with medication.

Heating pads

Heat can help to ease the pelvic muscles causing contractions. You might want to start by applying heat packs over the lower abdomen – a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel, for example, or try a warm bath. If you need to get to work or school, a heat patch or heating pad under your clothes can be a convenient and effective method to soothe, or you can try specific creams or balms that act to warm the area.

TENS machine

A TENS machine (transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation) may help to reduce pain. It works by delivering a mild electric current to your tummy and can also be effective for any associated back pain. It’s used in relieving the pain of contractions in childbirth, which suggests how effective it can be.

Exercise techniques

Simple movements to gently reposition the pelvis can be very soothing and help reduce inflammation. One suggested move is to lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor, and gently create a bridge by lifting your pelvis up and down in slow movements. Another exercise is to lie on your back, bend your knees to your chest, and move them gently in circles with your hands. This will also help if pain has spread from the tummy to the lower back and thighs.

Relaxation techniques

Don’t underestimate the power of the mind when it comes to pain relief. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or gentle yoga may help to distract from the discomfort, calm the mind, and prevent stress and anxiety build-up in regard to period pain.

Give up smoking

If you need another reason to take this step to improve your health, there’s evidence that smokers may suffer worse period pain than non-smokers, and one study suggested that the severity of period pain correlated with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Check our helpful guide on how to quit smoking.

Ginger tea

There is good anecdotal evidence that ginger tea eases pain and inflammation for many types of ailments, including period pain. It can feel comforting to hold a warm cup of tea when you’re not feeling your best.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

A comprehensive review of trials of micronutrients (vitamins K, D, B1, and E, and calcium, magnesium, zinc sulfate and boron), found that vitamins D and E significantly reduced dysmenorrhea, compared to placebo, but more research is needed to confirm safety and effectiveness. Anecdotally, many women report that magnesium taken daily helps reduce the severity of their period pain.

Antioxidant-rich diet

Adding antioxidant foods to your diet may help to reduce inflammation that causes crampy pain. This includes fresh and raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Although more evidence is needed to support this, Healthwords would always vote for a plant-based diet with lots of varied and colorful foodstuffs to keep you healthy.

When should I see my doctor?

If pain is severe, you may need a stronger NSAID, which your doctor can prescribe. Mefenamic acid is often effective for mild to moderate pain, although it is less good at reducing any associated inflammation. Your doctor will advise on the best medication for you.

Hormonal contraceptive methods may also help, such as the contraceptive pill, implant or injection, or a contraceptive coil that delivers progesterin. All of these can help reduce the build-up of prostaglandins and thereby reduce period pain.

If your period pain is severe enough for you to miss school or work repeatedly, or if you have the same crampy spasms when you are not having your period, you should see your doctor as there may be other causes such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or fibroids. These are more likely to occur in your 30s and early 40s.

If you are experiencing pelvic pain during sex, or bleeding after sex or between periods, or have an unusual vaginal discharge, these are reasons to see your doctor. A sexually transmitted infection or pelvic inflammatory disease may be the cause.

Painful periods often go together with heavy periods (menorrhagia). This is another reason to book an appointment with your doctor.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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