Written by Katherine Garner
Period pain – it’s estimated that 80% of women will experience it, and we all have our own methods to deal with it. Not all of us can use typical painkillers like Ibuprofen– so what else is out there to help with period pain relief? And which is best for you? If your go-to strategies aren’t working and you’ve been trawling the web to find some advice, FabLittleBag is here to with some options:
What causes period pain?
Period pain (or dysmenorrhea) is caused by prostaglandins, chemicals which your body releases in response to the destruction of the uterine lining during a period. The uterus contains muscle, and prostaglandins cause it to contract more strongly. These really prolonged strong contractions cut off blood flow, and it’s the resulting oxygen starvation that causes cramping pain. Women with painful periods tend to be those with the highest levels of prostaglandins, which tend to peak during the first two days of bleeding.
How to reduce period pains.
To help you on your quest for a more bearable period, here are our FAB period pain relief solutions…
This is obviously #1 on the list – they’re easy to take and are the first port of call for most of us. But when it comes to periods, not all painkillers are equal so here’s what you need to know.
Ibuprofen is the best option when it comes to period pain tablets, because of how it works. It’s a type of anti-inflammatory painkiller called NSAID. These work by stopping prostaglandins from being made. And no prostaglandins = no painful muscle contractions! Plus, ibuprofen can make your flow lighter too. On the negative side, NSAIDs can worsen an upset stomach, and regular long-term use (e.g. for an injury) may delay ovulation so this is something to watch out for if you’re trying to conceive.
Out of ibuprofen? Paracetamol unfortunately won’t help as much when it comes to period pain tablets, as it mostly works on pain perception and only blocks prostaglandins weakly. A mixture of paracetamol and codeine (co-codamol) is effective, but don’t use it for more than a few days. And aspirin may work better for the pain, but it can make your flow heavier.
All this said - watch out for special painkillers in a pink box which claim to be designed for periods. You don’t need them! They’re usually just rapid-release ibuprofen with a hefty ‘pink tax’ added.
Most of us have probably hugged a hot water bottle or heat pad during the first day of a period, but have you ever wondered, why does heat work for a period? Heat relaxes the uterine muscles and increases blood flow to the oxygen-starved uterus, which relieves cramps. For that reason, period pain is one type of pain you never want to use cold for. You might put an ice pack on an achy muscle or an injured knee but doing the same for period pain will only make things worse!
- Regular exercise
Does exercise help period pain? It might not be the first thing you fancy doing when you have cramps, but regular exercise can improve period pain, plus it’s good for you. Studies have found that exercising three times a week for 45-60 mins is enough, whether it’s high intensity like running or low intensity like yoga. Women who stuck to this exercise schedule rated their pain as 25% less severe on average than women who didn’t exercise. And good news – they didn’t have to exercise during the week of their period for this effect! But, if you can manage it, some light exercise or stretches might help to improve blood flow during your period too.
- Vitamins and minerals
Thiamine, aka vitamin B1, is found in some meat, fish, whole grains and legumes, or you can take it as a daily supplement. It’s been found to improve PMS and pain with no side effects in women who took it throughout the month. There is also evidence that regular magnesium supplements, or a magnesium-rich diet with lots of leafy green veg, can help with pain and prostaglandin levels. Both magnesium and thiamine are safe so it’s definitely worth trying to work some more beans and leafy greens into your diet. A quick cheat is to have a bath with a generous handful of magnesium flakes.
- Alternative medicines
From fish oil to chamomile and even cinnamon, alternative medicine has many suggested remedies for period pain - I counted at least 15 when researching this article! And with a number like that, it can be hard to know which remedy to use. Sadly, for most of them there’s no or little evidence and they could even do more harm than good – not something you want when you’re in pain already. Those which there are the most positive evidence for are valerian, humulus lupulus (AKA hops) and Passiflora incarnata (AKA passionflower).
Valerian is usually used for sleep problems, but 300 mg will reduce period pain in a similar way to OTC drugs by relaxing the uterine muscles. Passionflower is another one you might see in your local health shop. Valerian and passionflower blends are sometimes sold for sleep, and there’s evidence the two interact positively in period pain as well.
As always with herbal remedies, there is no hard-and-fast rule for dosage, therefore it’s best to be cautious and pay attention to recommended doses. It’s easy to view herbal remedies as harmless because they’re ‘natural’, but a good rule is to treat them just like a normal medicine: if it’s strong enough to help you, then it’s definitely strong enough to harm too if used inappropriately.
Hops have been shown to reduce cramping and the average can of beer will contain about 1g of hops. However, alcohol itself can cause dehydration and reduce your magnesium levels, both of which cause worse cramping. So, sadly a pint won’t help with your period pain, but concentrated supplements might.
- Birth control
If you go to your doctor with period pain, they might prescribe the pill – just like ibuprofen this works by reducing prostaglandins. Obviously taking the pill comes with its own side effects and other considerations which mean it might not be for you. One to think through and discuss with your GP.
- TENS Electro Stimulation
Using a TENS machine relieves pain using electric currents sent through the skin. According to a 2011 review it can help with period pain, but it might be less effective than normal painkillers like ibuprofen. But if you’re looking to avoid pills for any reason, this may be a good medical alternative.
When we have plenty of options to manage pain effectively during our periods, we have more mental energy left to deal with our period products in an eco-friendly way. FabLittleBag completely takes the stress out of sanitary disposal and if you happen to be a ‘flusher’, might be just what you need to convert to a full-time ‘binner’ - or as our customers say, a ‘Fabber’!