While period cramps can be painful, there are many ways to help get rid of the pain.
Period pain can be so bad that doctors have actually given it a medical name: dysmenorrhea.
It’s a very common condition. More than half of women who menstruate report some pain from period cramps each month, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
While cramps are not usually a sign of a serious health condition, they could be. And they undoubtedly put a crimp in your lifestyle, since you can’t go out with friends or even go to work when you’re doubled over.
Why Are Period Cramps Painful?
Dysmenorrhea is thought to be caused by compounds in the body known as prostaglandins. Before menstruation starts each month, the level of prostaglandins in the lining of the uterus increases.
Your prostaglandin level is its highest on the first day of your menstrual period, which is why menstrual pain is usually worse then. As your period progresses and the lining of the uterus is shed, your prostaglandin level decreases and pain gets better, ACOG states.
How to Tell if Your Period Cramping Is Normal
Each girl or woman typically experiences a similar level of cramps from one month to the next, says Jackie Thielen, MD, an internist and women’s health specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. For some women, monthly pain is minor. For others, it can be quite debilitating.
The main question doctors ask when determining whether your cramps are normal is “Are they normal for you?” Dr. Thielen says.
Can Bad Period Cramps Be a Sign of Something Else?
Period cramps usually don’t signify that something is wrong with your health. But in some cases they can be a symptom of a medical condition:
- Endometriosis This disorder occurs when tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus grows outside your uterus, often adhering to your bladder, ovaries, or even your bowels.
- Uterine Fibroids These are noncancerous growths that emerge inside the uterine walls. They can range in size from one tiny speck to several bulky masses.
- Adenomyosis Tissue that normally lines the uterus begins to grow inside the organ’s muscle wall.
Pain from these conditions may seem like period pain, but it typically lasts longer and can be more severe than your usual menstrual cramps.
If you experience this type of pain, it’s important to see your doctor, Thielen says.
Can You Heal Menstrual Cramps With Home Remedies?
Most of the time, menstrual cramps can be treated by women at home.
But if your pain is severe and impacts your lifestyle, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor. You might need medicines that are only available by prescription or some other treatment to help.
To help reduce period pain, here are 10 safe and effective home remedies for menstrual cramp relief.
1. Try Some Yoga Poses to Ease Menstrual Pain
Whether it's the stretching of your muscles or the relaxing effect of the poses, a regular yoga practice can indeed help your cramps.
When 20 undergraduate students did an hour-long yoga program once a week for three months, they had less menstrual cramping and period distress than 20 women who didn’t, according to researchers for a study published in September 2016 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
The Journal of Physiotherapy review that sanctioned heating pads also found benefits for yoga.
You can practice during your period or between them, but some instructors advise women against doing inverted poses (like a shoulder stand) in the midst of menstruation, so as not interfere with your natural flow.
2. Curl Up With a Heating Pad to Ease Period Cramps
“The uterus is a muscle, so anything that helps relax muscles, like applying heat, can be beneficial, Thielen says.
Indeed, research published in Evidence-Based Nursing found that topically applied heat was just as effective as ibuprofen for period cramps. Over the two study days, the women used heat alone, heat plus ibuprofen, ibuprofen alone, or a placebo. The best results were in the heat plus ibuprofen group; adding heat led to faster improvements.
A review published in March 2014 in The Journal of Physiotherapy also found that heat significantly lessened a woman’s period pain.
3. Pop a Safe Painkiller to Cut the Inflammation
Moderate use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) is one of the best ways to curb period pain, Thielen says. This is because NSAIDs reduce the amount of prostaglandins in the body. For this reason, taking a pill just before you get your period can keep the level of pain-causing prostaglandins from rising, she says.
As with any medicine, you should first check with your doctor to be sure NSAIDs are a good choice for you, especially if you have a history of bleeding or stomach or kidney issues.
If the NSAIDs you buy in the store don’t offer enough relief, your doctor might prescribe an NSAID with more potency. “Some women need up to 800 milligrams three times a day for cramps. You’d have to take a lot of over-the-counter pills to equal that,” Thielen says.
4. Acupuncture May Help by Relaxing the Nervous System
Acupuncture can help relieve cramps, says Jeannie Bianchi, a licensed acupuncturist in San Francisco. This ancient Asian healing method is thought to relax the nervous system, allow more blood to flow to internal organs, and quell inflammation, Bianchi says.
In a review published in April 2016 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews experts looked at 42 studies that observed the effects of acupuncture on period cramps. Each compared acupuncture with no treatment, conventional treatment (such as anti-inflammatory drugs), or a sham acupuncture procedure. Many of the studies found that the acupuncture group had less period pain and no side effects. The researchers emphasize, however, that the quality of all of the studies was poor.
5. Some Herbal Tea Varieties Can Calm Cramping
Certain teas may help relieve menstrual cramps, says Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the San Francisco Bay area.
Research on herbal teas for menstrual pain relief is scarce, but teas have been used by menstruating women in numerous cultures for centuries.
Chamomile and peppermint teas are often recommended for menstrual pain because they are calming to the body. Other teas associated with dysmenorrhea are those made from cramp bark, ginger, or fennel.
6. Up the Magnesium in Your Diet
Dietary magnesium seems to help ease the pain of cramps, says DeJarra Sims, ND, a faculty member at Bastyr University in San Diego and the author of Your Healthiest Life Now.
Magnesium is found in many foods, including almonds, black beans, spinach, yogurt, and peanut butter.
If you want to take a magnesium supplement, Dr. Sims suggests speaking with your doctor, since the dose you need depends on the severity of your cramps along with other factors.
7. Massage With Essential Oils for Pain Relief
Massaging your skin with certain aromatic essential oils can relieve menstrual cramp pain, according to research published in The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research. Investigators asked 48 women with menstrual cramps and other symptoms to massage either essential oils or a synthetic fragrance into their lower abdomen between periods.
Women in both groups reported less pain, but the essential oils group did better. Based on the women's reports, researchers found that the duration of pain was reduced by almost a half a day after self-massaging with the essential oils.
Some oils thought to be helpful include lavender essential oil, clary sage essential oil, and marjoram essential oil.
Just be sure you’re using essential oils safely. Buy high-quality oils that are tested for purity. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy suggests diluting pure essential oils in an unscented cream, lotion, or carrier oil before placing it on your skin to avoid irritation.
8. Boost Those Feel-Good Endorphins With Exercise (or Orgasm)
The body's natural endorphins are known to boost your mood. But they also have a pain-relieving effect. A well-known way to boost endorphins is aerobic exercise. Having an orgasm is another.
A study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Family & Reproductive Health, found that, in 100 women, either stretching exercises or aerobic exercises done three times a week for two months reduced cramping.
9. Improving Your Diet May Alleviate Period Cramps
When researchers put 33 women with dysmenorrhea on a low-fat vegetarian diet, they found it eased their cramps, according to research published in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Start by swapping out less healthy fats like the saturated fats found in animal products for healthier ones like unsaturated fats found in olive oil, suggests the American Heart Association. Overall, try to make the fats you eat better quality, such as those found in fish or nuts, the organization suggests. Examples of meals not overly reliant on fats can be found in the healthy eating plate guide from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
10. Birth Control Pills May Lessen Painful Cramping, Too
While not exactly a home remedy, birth control pills and hormonal intrauterine devices are potential tools in your anticramping arsenal and should not be overlooked, Thielen says.
Consider cramp relief a benefit to some types of contraception. Many women find relief from painful cramps when they start the pill, Thielen says. “Hormonal birth control typically lessens the amount of bleeding, and less bleeding can translate into fewer cramps,” she says.