Unfortunately, painful periods affect many women and for some can be extremely debilitating. This condition, known medically as dysmenorrhea, causes pain in the lower back and abdomen. While a little discomfort is normal, extreme pain is not and warrants further examination as conditions like endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cysts, or even IBS could be the cause of this pain.
Primary dysmenorrhea starts at the onset of the menstrual cycle of a young woman, while secondary dysmenorrhea develops later in life. Typical Western treatments include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, or birth control pills. Both can temporarily reduce the severity of symptoms but don't address the root cause of the issue (especially if the pain is stemming from another condition).
From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, we need to differentiate between excess and deficiency, cold and heat, and chi—another word for energy. As an acupuncture therapist, my goal is to regulate chi and blood to maintain a proper flow, making sure that areas of concern are getting the attention they need from your body. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Treat the mind with movement and sleep.
From a lifestyle point of view, try to decrease stress during your period, as it's linked to the body's inflammatory response and can worsen period pain. Light exercise is a good way to release endorphins and relax the muscles. This may mean taking up yoga, meditation, active recovery, or whatever type of light exercise you enjoy. This will also aid in alleviating other symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and general achiness. For those of us who tend to push ourselves through workouts, however, stress relief may be as simple as resting the body and mind. While movement is necessary, so, too, is rest. Getting a good amount of regular sleep can also help to counter many stress-related symptoms.
2. Try acupuncture to reduce pain.
Acupuncture can be very helpful in alleviating dysmenorrhea. The practice can effectively move stagnant chi, which helps counteract pain by increasing the endorphin levels in the blood. According to Chinese philosophy, "Pain is caused by stagnation, and absence of stagnation will relieve pain." Even if you feel better after a session, your practitioner and your doctor must evaluate the nature, location, and severity of the pain to start getting to the bottom of what's causing it. An Eastern and Western approach complement each other well when acupuncture is involved.
3. Avoid cold food and drink.
I always tell my patients with period pain to avoid cold foods and beverages. According to Chinese medicine philosophy backed by science, ingestion of cold food and drink may affect the menstrual process. This can translate to increased muscle cramping. For example, when drinking water, make it room temperature. When choosing foods, opt for cooked veggies over raw ones.
4. Use common herbs.
Herbs can be used to help control estrogen and progesterone levels in order to decrease the severity of cramping. Once the cause of the pain has been identified, the correct formula can be tailor-made for you by a trained professional. These formulas are meant to treat the root cause and not just treat the symptoms.
When dysmenorrhea is not associated with another more serious disorder, it may be because of an increase in prostaglandins in the endometrium. This liquid compound produced during menstruation causes hyperactivity of the uterine wall. The muscles, in turn, increase contractions and therefore cramping. The most common choice for pain and cramping relief are anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen; however, curcumin found in turmeric has long been used for the relief of period pain as well as amenorrhea (absence of menstruation), indigestion, and excessive gas. The root aids in inhibiting the formation of prostaglandins and, therefore, decreases the likelihood of cramping. Other herbs that are commonly taken to regulate hormones include chasteberry (vitex agnus). This herb has been used historically as a hormone stabilizer, treating PMS as well as menopausal symptoms. Before changing your regimen or ingesting any herbs, consult your doctor, of course.