When Cramps Strike: Period Pain

This post about period pain is part of our Women’s Health Week 2017 series.

Have you ever suffered period pain (or dysmenorrhoea, as we often call it)? The most likely answer to that question is a big YES. It’s estimated that, worldwide, over 50% of women frequently experience painful periods, with 10 – 15% of women experiencing pain so bad that it affects their ability to perform normal daily functions – like going to school or work.

When it comes to our menstrual cycles, our periods really do speak volumes about the state of our reproductive health. This might seem obvious, but we so very rarely stop to think about it. They also vary a LOT from woman to woman – as do ideas of what is considered “normal” in terms of flow and pain.

Medically speaking, there are two types of period pain. Primary dysmenorrhoea is pain with no obvious underlying pathology, where the uterus is working extra-hard to dislodge its lining, by strongly contracting.These symptoms are usually only severe for 24 hours or so, if at all. Secondary dysmenorrhoea occurs when there is another problem under the surface – such as endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts, adenomyosis and cervical stenosis, among other causes. Sometimes with secondary dysmenorrhea, pain can occur between periods as well as during bleeding. Both types have overlapping symptoms, such as:

  • dull, dragging, aching or severe cramping pain in the lower abdomen
  • pain radiating into the back, hips and/or thighs
  • mild nausea and/or diarrhoea
  • worst at the beginning of the period

If your pain is so severe that you vomit, need to miss school or work, or keeps occurring throughout your cycle is a red flag to go and get checked out by your doctor, as you may have an underlying pathology going on.

So, what is “normal” period pain?

As far as I’m concerned, although period pain is common, it’s most definitely not “normal”, and shouldn’t ever occur in an otherwise healthy woman. The presence of pain indicates to a Chinese medicine practitioner that the usual flow of the menstrual cycle is not occurring as it should, which means some other factor is getting in the way. These factors can include a hormonal imbalance (from contraceptives or an unhealthy diet), stress and other lifestyle factors, nutrient imbalances, or an undiagnosed and untreated underlying condition.

There are many things you can do (under the supervision of a qualified health professional, of course) to help when the period pains strike, including:

  • applying warmth to the area, with a hot water bottle or wheat pack (NEVER put ice on your tummy – this can make pain worse by constricting blood flow to the area)
  • partaking in light exercise
  • switching to a natural, anti-inflammatory wholefoods diet
  • supplementing with herbs, vitamins or minerals (under the supervision of a health professional)
  • Rest when you’re on your period – this is absolutely not a time to go and run a marathon. Don’t push yourself, and allow your body to do what it needs to do.
  • Consider switching to organic pads or tampons or, even better, invest in a menstrual cup. Get rid of those toxic chemicals present in conventional tampons and pads!
  • Incorporate blood-moving foods into your diet in those first few days of flow – a few examples of these are eggplant, turmeric, spring onions, leeks and crab.
  • Try acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs. If you can, book in to see us on the day you experience pain.

In between periods, do your best to eat well, exercise moderately and live in accordance with the ebb and flow of your cycle (read more about that here).

Taking note of when and where you get pain can be very helpful to your doctor or practitioner in determining how we might be able to help to relieve that pain – if you can, bring notes! And in the meantime, do what you can – rest, and take care of yourself and your body. Remember, self love is in fashion!


About the Author:
Dr. Grace Jones (BHSc.Acu) is the founder and primary practitioner at Acupuncture with Grace. She is a passionate and nationally qualified and registered acupuncturist, with special interests in women’s health, natural fertility, pregnancy, digestive health and emotional wellness. Learn more about Grace here.

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