More than 84% of people who get periods report some kind of menstrual pain.
Almost half experience pain during every monthly cycle, while about two in five have occasional period pain. Either way, period cramps and pain can disrupt everyday life.
Luckily, home remedies may help. In this article, first I’ll explain what period cramps are and what causes them. Then I’ll discuss 11 common ways to alleviate period pain, plus when to see a medical provider for care.
What Causes Period Cramps?
Hormones called prostaglandins help to regulate blood flow to the uterus and are involved in both pregnancy and menstrual cycles. During menstruation, prostaglandins can cause cramping by causing the uterus to contract to help expel the uterine lining.
Not everyone experiences cramping in the uterus. Some people feel it in their lower back, abdomen, or radiating down the hips and thighs.
Others may feel no cramping, but may experience changes in bowel function, nausea, bloating, headaches, and/or vomiting.
Cramps can also be worse for people with certain underlying conditions, including:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
You may be more likely to experience cramping if you:
- Are under age 30
- Started puberty before age 12
- Have irregular periods
- Bleed heavily during periods
At-Home Remedies for Period Cramps
Though cramps may be unpleasant, you don’t have to be at the mercy of period pain.
Many at-home remedies may provide relief.
OTC pain medications
Over-the-counter pain relievers are a great way to ease menstrual pain.
NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) may be most effective since they specifically work to reduce prostaglandins in the body, which are some of the chemicals responsible for menstrual cramping.
Research has shown ibuprofen to be the safest and most effective OTC pain reliever for period cramps. It can be taken along with acetaminophen or a combination product such as Midol (which contains acetaminophen as well as additional ingredients for bloating.)
OTC medications are most effective when taken at the first sign of cramping.
Whether you wrap yourself up in an electric blanket, use a heating pad or hot water bottle, or opt for an abdominal heat patch, warming the muscles of the uterus may decrease period-related pain and cramping.
Heat also increases circulation in the abdomen, which may also help to lessen pain.
As with any other type of muscle cramp, dehydration can worsen symptoms and make period cramps feel more painful. You may also experience increased bloating if you are dehydrated.
You can tell that you are well hydrated if your urine is clear or light yellow and you are urinating at least every 6 hours.
Studies show that the following dietary supplements may help reduce period pain:
Dietary and herbal supplements can interact with other medications and medical conditions.
Since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, they do not always contain the listed ingredients or doses and should be used with caution. The exact dose and preparation of these supplements for menstrual cramping has not been studied.
Check with your medical provider to ensure it’s safe for you to take any supplement.
Eating foods that have anti-inflammatory benefits may help address period pain, though further studies are needed to confirm this link.
Foods that may be helpful include berries, avocado, fatty fish like salmon, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Limiting foods that can worsen inflammation, water retention, bloating, and other digestive symptoms may also help to decrease menstrual symptoms.
It is best to decrease very salty foods, caffeine, and alcohol around the time of your period.
Acupressure or acupuncture
Acupressure is a noninvasive pressure-point alternative therapy that uses finger pressure to stimulate certain points around the body to ease pain symptoms.
Small experimental studies have shown benefits of acupressure for menstrual period pain, however, larger trials are necessary to fully understand this connection.
Acupuncture, which stimulates points across the body with tiny needles, is an alternative therapy that originates from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
A meta-analysis of 49 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture was effective for reducing menstrual pain when compared to no treatment or using NSAIDs for pain relief.
Research found that low- and medium-intensity exercise may decrease menstrual cramping pain. The effects were best with consistent exercise (30 minutes of physical activity, three days per week, for at least eight weeks).
Other research found that people who did one hour of yoga per week for 12 weeks had significantly reduced levels of menstrual pain.
Massage can help with many different types of pain by helping with muscle relaxation. More studies are needed to prove it’s utility for menstrual cramps, but some small studies have found massage to help reduce pain due to menstruation in those with endometriosis.
If you can’t go for massage therapy, studies show that using a TENS unit, a machine that provides a massage using gentle electrical stimulation, may reduce period pain and lower dependence on painkillers. TENS units are available in many pharmacies and online.
Like the benefits of a heating pad, a warm bath may soothe muscles and help relax the abdomen, pelvic floor muscles, and lower back.
To get the most benefits, soak in a warm bath for at least 15 minutes as often as needed.
Essential oils like lavender, rose, cinnamon, and clove may help ease period pain, especially when paired with a carrier oil and used to massage the abdomen or back.
Do not apply undiluted essential oils to the skin; always use an oil (such as coconut or jojoba) to dilute the essential oils.
If you have never used it before, test the diluted essential oil on a small patch of skin to check for allergic reactions, especially if you have any plant or seasonal allergies. To use with massage, rub the abdomen in gentle circular motions.
Never ingest essential oils, and make sure to keep them away from pets and children.
Magnesium is a vitamin that can help with muscle relaxation and research suggests that magnesium is more effective than placebo at relieving period cramps.
You can increase your magnesium intake by eating foods rich in the mineral, such as pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, and cashews. Y
ou can also take a dietary supplement, but do not take more than 350 milligrams (mg) per day from a supplement.
When to See a Medical Provider
Period cramping might be a common part of life for some people, but it should not be severe enough to interfere with everyday activities. If you find that period cramps keep you bed-bound or unable to function on certain days, see a medical provider.
Extreme period pain, new, or worsening period pain may be a sign of underlying health issues such as:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Uterine fibroids
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
A healthcare provider will consider your symptoms, medical conditions, and health history to provide an accurate diagnosis and more information about why your period pain is more severe.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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