For most women, periods bring more than just mild discomfort. The pain that accompanies that time of the month can be significant enough to interfere with day-to-day activities, work, exercise and relationships. Menstruation pain, more commonly known as dysmenorrhoea, can range from mild discomfort to intensely sharp pain or cramping that keeps you from doing the things you love.
It’s important to understand that not all cases of painful menstruation are the same. There are two broad types: primary and secondary dysmenorrhea (1).
Primary dysmenorrhea refers to cramps that are not caused by other diseases. The pain usually starts one or two days before the actual period or when the bleeding occurs. These symptoms develop because of a chemical known as prostaglandin that causes the uterus to tighten up and relax irregularly. The ensuing contraction can press against nearby structures, reducing oxygen supply to muscle tissue. You feel pain when any part of the muscle loses its oxygen supply for a moment. In some cases, menstrual pain may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, weakness, and / or diarrhoea (1).
On the other hand, secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by an underlying disorder or infection in the reproductive organs, such as endometriosis and fibroids. This type of menstruation pain usually begins much earlier in the menstrual cycle and tends to last longer than primary dysmenorrhea (1). Secondary dysmenorrhea may require medical treatment. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two types, so it’s best to visit your healthcare provider so you can get the help you need.
You can take several practical steps to manage menstruation pain from primary dysmenorrhea. If period pain is keeping you from your usual routine, here are some tips to take back control.
Plenty of hydration to beat bloating, muscle tension and uterine cramps is recommended. Herbal tea infusions have anti-spasmodic compounds and anti-inflammatory foods like berries, tomatoes, pineapple and certain spices like garlic and turmeric, offer natural relief to cramps. Steer clear off sugary foods to avoid inflammation and caffeinated drinks that may cause your blood vessels to narrow, and result in cramps (8).
In severe cases, where menstrual pain is unmanageable through diet and naturally occurring remedies, you can take painkillers to relieve painful menstruation. Some anti-inflammatory medications can also inhibit the production of prostaglandin, thereby reducing menstrual pain as it prevents ovulation (2). This means that the lining of the womb doesn’t thicken as usual, resulting in a lighter period.
Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions when taking drugs. Some drugs may come with side effects, such as headaches, nausea, and stomach problems. Take extra care not to become too reliant on meds and explore other non-drug ways to ease menstruation pain.
If you’re experiencing painful menstruation, take a heating pad and press it on your abdomen or lower back. The heat forces the muscles to relax, easing the painful symptoms. In a study, a patch heated to 39°C used for 12 hours a day was found to be just as effective as taking ibuprofen (3).
When trying heat therapy, make sure to wrap the hot compress to prevent skin burns. You can also try massaging your abdomen or lower back or take medications to experience greater relief.
Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to relieve pain. Regular physical activity can stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and improve blood flow at the pelvic level.
It has been found that women who exercise regularly experience less menstrual pain (1). But don’t just exercise on the days leading up to your period. Make it a point to build exercise into your everyday routine. Start with low-impact exercises like yoga, walking, and jogging before gradually moving up in intensity. On the days of your period, opt for gentle movement like walking and stretching if you can.
You can consider taking mineral and vitamin supplements to optimise the effects of your healthy lifestyle choices and reduce menstruation pain. Magnesium, vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin E, and fish oil are some supplements that may help (4).
Several studies have found magnesium, in particular, provides relief from cramps. The exact mechanism by which this essential mineral relieves pain has yet to be discovered but it is believed that it has a relaxing effect that controls neuromuscular stimulation (5). Magnesium contributes to muscle relaxation and contraction given its role in ion transport across the cell membranes.
Some hormonal experts believe that magnesium deficiency may contribute to and worsen such symptoms. It has been found that the magnesium level of erythrocytes and leukocytes of women with premenstrual syndrome is lower than those without (5). While magnesium itself may already be helpful, a study has found that combining it with other vitamins, like Vitamin B6, may come with better results (5).
Fish oil is also being explored as a treatment for menstrual pain. Fish oils from fatty fishes like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are known for their anti-inflammatory effects while supporting heart and brain health, but they may also help with gynecological pain. The main mechanism by which it achieves this is by suppressing prostaglandin synthesis, the hormone-like substance that causes the uterus to contract (6).
A study found that fish oil performs better than ibuprofen in treating severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea (6). Patients who were treated with fish oil had better pain intensity and recovery percentages compared to those who took ibuprofen (6).
Vitamin B1 or thiamine is also being considered to relieve PMS symptoms. Since it is effective in regulating neural activity and muscle tonus, doctors are studying whether it can also apply to uterine muscular contractions (7). A study suggests that the vitamin shows promise in reducing the overall severity of physical and mental symptoms of PMS in the luteal phase. The vitamin also appears to have no side effects and changes in the menstrual bleeding pattern (7).
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to menstruation pain management. For some women, all it takes is some lifestyle changes, but others need to explore several options until they find what truly works for their bodies. Making healthy choices is a good foundation to keep menstrual pain at bay, but you can optimise the effects of these positive lifestyle modifications with supplements that much your personal needs.
If you’re looking for supplements to reduce the intensity and frequency of menstrual pain, look no further than Vitable. We offer a monthly vitamin subscription where you can mix and match micronutrients for your personalised vitamins in Australia. We even take care of vitamin delivery for your ultimate convenience. Browse through our best vitamin packs today!
*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.