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Tackling Period Cramps without Painkillers
Tackling Period Cramps without Painkillers
If you know the specific misery of period cramps—aching, throbbing, gripping discomfort in your lower abdomen or back—you might also be familiar with the regular game of popping an ibuprofen and hoping for it to be over soon. Over-the-counter painkillers do what they’re made to do. But if you’re tired of them, there are other in-the-moment approaches that have a good track record.
First, it might help to know how cramps work. The short of it is that they’re caused by uterus contractions. Contractions are a normal part of a menstrual cycle—they’re what help the uterus shed its lining—but if they’re too strong, they can compress nearby blood vessels and restrict oxygen flow to the uterine muscles, which leads to cramping.
One high-tech approach to easing cramps uses electricity that moves through the body. If that sounds a little off-putting: It’s the same technology that’s used in physical therapists’ offices for muscular pain, and it’s not uncomfortable at all. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, works by delivering low-voltage electrical currents to the skin via sticky electrode pads, which you place over the area of your body that’s bothering you. From there, the machine will send out small, localized electrical signals into your muscles and sensory nerves—a process designed to stimulate muscle contraction and temporarily relieve muscle pain in the applied area.
Several studies have shown TENS to be effective for menstrual discomfort. Scientists believe TENS works for cramps by dilating blood vessels and increasing local blood flow, fighting back against the restricted oxygen that causes cramping in the first place. It might also have something to do with the gate control theory of pain, which is the idea that we can use strong nonpainful sensations—like the buzzy feeling of TENS treatment—to effectively block our perception of more painful ones, like cramps.
Therabody’s PowerDot is our at-home TENS device of choice. The whole device, including the pod that powers it, sticks to your body, and you control it through an app instead of reaching for buttons on the pod. Which frees you to move around naturally, even when you have the electrodes placed on your abdomen or lower back.
If you’re drawn to lo-fi approaches, good news: There are a handful of home remedies that are vetted by care professionals and people with periods alike.
If you ask an herbalist, they might point you to teas and tinctures made with fennel seed, chamomile, ginger, peppermint, valerian root, or raspberry leaf. Of those, raspberry leaf may come the most highly recommended. Traditionally known as a uterine tonic—and referenced primarily in the context of pregnancy and childbirth—its benefits may come from the combination of tannins and an alkaloid called fragarine. Different herbalists make different recommendations. You might find one who suggests drinking a cup or two the day you expect cramps to start. Another might say it’s better to sip two or three cups a day starting two days before your period is expected to begin and continuing through the length of your period. There have been very few scientific studies to confirm the effects of raspberry leaf or determine which protocol is best. Keep in mind it might not be right for everyone—it may affect people with endometriosis differently, for example—so it’s something to talk to your doctor about before you go all out.
If you want to support healthy monthly hormone balance, the chaste tree berry tincture from Gaia Herbs is formulated to support female reproductive health. It contains just chaste tree berry extract, alcohol (to stabilize the solution), and water—you drop half to a full milliliter into a few ounces of water and knock it back daily.*
If you’re able to swing it, a bit of movement can help ease cramps. The goal here is to get your heart rate up. We’re not saying it’s time for your toughest run, but a few brisk laps walking around the block can make a difference. The effect has something to do with endorphins—when you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which both produce feelings of pleasure and reduce feelings of pain. It appears, though, that endorphin release requires you to hit a certain threshold of intensity: A pair of wrist or ankle weights can help you get there without investing much more effort.
Yoga has a good reputation for easing cramps, too. Focus on restorative poses that stretch the abdomen and back, like cat-cow, pigeon, gentle twists, and wide-legged child’s pose. Supportive props like blankets, pillows, bolsters, blocks, and wheels are your friends here. For some guidance, Yoga with Adriene has a great class targeting period-related discomfort—the pace is just right for when you’re feeling low-energy, and you can always pause and linger a little longer where it feels best for your body.
Tried and true and unbelievably simple: Heat helps your uterine muscles relax. How you want to go about it is entirely up to your preference and what’s available to you. Heating pads and hot water bottles are great inexpensive options. We hear good things about stick-on heating patches, which wear well under clothes if you’re on the go. In a pinch, you can soak a washcloth in warm water, wring it out, and drape it over your abdomen; the heat doesn’t last as long as with the methods above, but you can repeat as often as you need to.
And you won’t find us passing up whole-body heat, which can be found in a warm bath. Just add Epsom salts and your favorite botanicals. (We like our Phys. Ed. bath soak—it contains arnica and ginger extracts and feels incredible for a tired body.)
Some people find ten to fifteen minutes of deep breathing helps get them through cramps. Part of it is that slowing and deepening the breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can calm down pain signals in the body. And part of it is simply distraction: If you can consciously turn your attention toward the physical sensation of breathing, you’re at least partially turning it away from the cramps themselves. You don’t need an app or a guide or anything fancy—simply let your belly expand fully as you take an elongated in breath, slowly and smoothly release until you’re just about empty, and repeat for as long as you need to.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.