Menstruation is a natural part of a woman’s life, but painful menstrual cramps are a very annoying problem for many. While menstrual cramps are rarely a cause for concern, if severe they can disrupt regular activities.
Menstrual cramps are due to a hormone-like substance called prostaglandin that causes the uterine muscles to contract during menstruation.
Cramping can cause a dull or throbbing pain in the lower abdomen, and radiate pain to the lower back and thighs. Cramps generally subside after the first two to three days of the period. Some women feel cramps just before the onset of their cycle, too.
Some factors can increase the chances of suffering from menstrual cramps, such as reaching puberty at an early age, genetics, heavy bleeding during periods and unhealthy habits like smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, consuming excess alcohol and taking illegal drugs.
For some women, menstrual cramps may reduce or completely disappear after childbirth.
To ease the pain and discomfort, there are several over-the-counter medicines. However, some simple and natural home remedies can be equally effective and relieve symptoms faster, or even prevent cramps.
Here are the top 10 home remedies for menstrual cramps.
Applying heat on the lower abdomen is the easiest way to control menstrual cramps. Heat helps relax the contracting muscles in the uterus.
- Place a heating pad over the lower part of your abdomen and lower back. You can even use a regular plastic bottle filled with hot water. Apply the heat until you feel more comfortable.
- Alternatively, soak a towel in water, wring out the excess water and then heat it in the microwave for one minute. Place it on the lower abdomen until the towel cools. Repeat every few minutes until the pain is gone.
- Even taking a hot shower may relieve pain and make you feel more relaxed.
Ginger is a wonder herb that can effectively ease menstrual cramps. This herb plays a key role in lowering the levels of the pain-causing prostaglandins. It also helps fight fatigue associated with premenstrual syndrome and can make irregular periods regular.
- Grate a small piece of ginger and boil it in a cup of water for five minutes. Strain it and add a little honey and lemon juice. Drink this tea three times a day during your menstrual cycle.
- You can also add ginger in your food while cooking or suck on some ginger candies.
Basil is another very effective herb for reducing menstrual pain and cramps. The caffeic acid present in basil has analgesic, or pain-killing properties.
- Add one tablespoon of basil leaves to one cup of boiling water. Cover tightly and allow it to cool. Drink this every few hours to ease cramps.
- Alternatively, crush a handful of basil leaves to extract the juice. Add two teaspoons of the juice to one cup of warm water. Drink this three times daily while having pain.
- You can also add fresh basil leaves to your food.
Cinnamon has antispasmodic, anticlotting and anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve menstrual pain. Plus, cinnamon is an excellent source of dietary fiber, calcium, iron and manganese.
- Make cinnamon tea by stirring one-fourth teaspoon of cinnamon powder into a cup of hot water. Let it sit for up to five minutes, add a little honey and then sip it slowly. Drink two to three cups of cinnamon tea one to two days before your period starts to prevent cramps.
- Add one-half teaspoon of cinnamon powder and one tablespoon of honey to a glass of warm water. Drink it three times during the first day of your period to relieve pain.
The antispasmodic, phytoestrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties of fennel can help relax the muscles in the uterus, which in turn relieves cramping and discomfort.
- Add one teaspoon of fennel seeds to a cup of boiling water.
- Simmer the mixture on low heat for five minutes.
- Remove from heat and strain the tea.
- Add one teaspoon of honey and mix well.
- Drink this herbal tea two times daily beginning three days before the expected start date of your cycle. Continue drinking it as needed for pain. Drink it hot for best results.
6. Blackstrap Molasses
Another time-tested remedy for menstrual cramps is blackstrap molasses.
Being rich in calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6 and selenium, blackstrap molasses helps reduce blood clots and soothe the muscles of the uterine walls. This in turn lessens cramps during menstruation.
- Add one to two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses to a cup of warm milk.
- Drink it as soon as you start having cramps and continue as long as needed.
7. Chamomile Tea
Chamomile tea has anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties that help relax the uterus and ease the spasmodic contractions that cause pain during menstruation.
- Bring one cup of water to a boil. Pour it into a cup containing a chamomile tea bag.
- Cover and let it steep for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Squeeze out the tea bag and add some lemon juice or honey as desired.
- Drink at least two cups of chamomile tea a day during the week before your period.
Parsley contains two compounds, apiol and myristicin, that are highly effective at stimulating the menstrual process and relieving cramps. Plus, it can help regulate irregular cycles.
- Put one-fourth cup of fresh parsley in a mug. Pour in one cup of boiling water.
- Let it steep for five minutes.
- Strain the solution and drink the tea immediately.
- Drink this tea twice a day during periods to minimize pain.
Flaxseed is great for reducing the intensity of menstrual cramps. The essential fatty acids in flaxseed help stabilize the production of progesterone. Plus, flaxseed can improve uterine function and help treat fertility problems.
When suffering from menstrual cramps, consume one to two tablespoons of flaxseed daily. You can sprinkle ground flaxseed over a salad, cereal and yogurt or put it in a smoothie.
A potent anti-inflammatory agent, papaya is very helpful in treating menstrual cramps. Also, it has nutrients like carotene, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C that help soothe the uterine walls and ease muscle contractions.
Just before and during your period, include papaya in your diet to minimize or eliminate pain.
Along with these remedies, you can do yoga and cardiovascular exercises to help get rid of menstrual cramps. Also, do not forget to drink plenty of water. If you experience severe menstrual cramps on a regular basis, consult a doctor.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Shwetha Shrivatsa, MBBS (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)
What are the different kinds of menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea)?
Menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea is a common problem experienced by 50% to 90% of reproductive aged women worldwide. A severe form of cramps interferes with daily activities, often leading to absenteeism from school, work and other responsibilities. There are two types of menstrual cramps – primary and secondary.
Primary dysmenorrhea is the menstrual cramps that are not due to an underlying disease. These cramps usually begin a few days prior to periods and become worse during first few days of periods. A woman may experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue and even diarrhea with this type of cramps. Some studies have shown that women who have family members affected by primary dysmenorrhea are at increased risk of experiencing severe form of menstrual cramps themselves.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is the pain caused by an underlying disease in a woman’s reproductive organs. Most common conditions are fibroids, adenomyosis, endometriosis and infection (PID or Pelvic Inflammatory disease). This type of pain in usually not associated with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. A woman with any of these underlying conditions may experience pain in her pelvic area even when she is not on her periods. Physical activities including sex can worsen this type of pain.
What makes your period painful?
Menstrual cramps are caused by a chemical called prostaglandin released from endometrium or lining of the uterus. The muscles in the uterus contract or tighten during periods. Prostaglandins can cause the muscle to contract strongly. If contractions are too strong, small blood vessels in these muscles can get clamped and blood supply can be cut-off for a brief period of time. This phenomenon of ischemia or lack of blood supply makes the menstrual cramps more painful.
Is it safe to consume over-the-counter pain relievers for painful periods?
Yes. NSAIDs or Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs are the mainstays of treatment for primary dysmenorrhea. NSAIDs reduce the amount of prostaglandins produced in the lining of the uterus and hence improve menstrual cramps.
Some examples of NSAIDs that are available over-the-counter are Ibuprofen and Naproxen. Other drugs that are effective but may need a prescription are Diclofenac, Mefenamic acid, Ketorolac and Celecoxib.
These medications should be taken with food and never on an empty stomach as they can cause nausea, diarrhea and even peptic ulcer with prolonged use.
Do menstrual cramps worsen with age?
Menstrual cramps that are not related to any underlying disease usually improve with age and after childbirth.
Are menstrual cramps a sign of increased fertility?
Having menstrual cramps suggests that a woman is ovulating during these cycles. However, having severe pain does not necessarily mean that she has increased fertility. If a woman is not planning to conceive, she should talk to her gynecologist about contraception. Birth control pills are commonly used to treat menstrual cramps in women who also need contraception.
If a woman is not able to conceive naturally, she should talk to her gynecologist even when she is experiencing menstrual cramps. Fertility or ability to conceive is dependent not only on ovulation but also on function of fallopian tubes, uterus and quality of semen.
Is it normal for menstrual cramps to be accompanied by blood clots in the period blood?
Yes. The tightening of the uterine muscles causes shedding of the lining of the uterus. It is concerning if the bleeding lasts longer than five days or if flow becomes heavy (changes of pad every 1-2 hours).
Having heavy periods for a long time can cause anemia or low blood count. Anemia can cause low energy, tiredness, decreased concentration, irritability or even heart problems in severe cases. This condition requires prompt evaluation and treatment typically with iron supplements and iron rich diet.
Heavy periods can be usually treated with birth control pills, progesterone containing IUDs or endometrial ablation in women who have completed childbearing.
Can anemia cause your period pain to be worse?
It is possible to have severe cramps when a woman is anemic as the blood has reduced capacity to carry oxygen to the uterus. It is important to get treatment for heavy periods in teenage years. If untreated, it will cause anemia and continue to worsen. In young girls, this can affect their performance in school and have impacts on self-image.
Please provide some expert tips to help our readers get relief from menstrual cramps.
- Make healthy diet, multivitamin supplementation and exercise a part of your routine.
- Practice relaxation techniques and meditation to decrease stress and modify response to pain.
- Take Ibuprofen twice daily, 1-2 days before the period starts. This significantly improves your cramps and does not interrupt your activities.
- Use heating pads on the lower abdomen and back for added comfort.
- Avoid caffeine, tobacco or alcohol use, especially during your periods.
- See your gynecologist atleast once a year and share your concern, especially if you have to miss school or work.
About Dr. Shwetha Shrivatsa, MBBS: Dr. Shrivatsa is a Board Certified OBGYN practicing in Philadelphia. She has been caring for women at Greater Philadelphia Health Action Inc. and has also been overseeing Women’s Health services as a Director. Her area of expertise includes treatment of Fibroid, Menstrual Irregularities and Pelvic pain with special interest in Minimally Invasive Surgery. She enjoys teaching medical students and resident physicians at Temple University Hospital as a Clinical Assistant Professor.