For many women, several days out of every month bring wrenching cramps, excruciating migraines and painful backaches during their menstrual cycles. Women used to lose days of school and work when their periods came, but nowadays there are remedies that can ease painful menstrual symptoms for many, experts say.
The most effective therapies for many women involve medications, but there are some non- pharmacological strategies that can also help.
First, it helps to understand what's causing all the pain.
In the case of cramping, the culprit is prostaglandins, natural substances produced by the cells lining the uterus that cause it to contract and relax, which in turn is what allows the uterus to shed its lining at the end of a woman's cycle. If too many prostaglandins are produced, the cramping can become intense and oxygen to the uterine muscles is decreased, which can result in severe pain.
Menstrual migraines are sparked by the changes in progesterone and estrogen that occur during a woman's cycle. The blood vessels in some women brains may just be more sensitive to fluctuating hormone levels.
There are several non-pharmacological therapies that can ease painful cramping and migraines.
Heating pad or hot water bottle on the belly: "This increases blood flow to the area and provides a sense of release and comfort," says Dr. Michael Bummer, co-director of Womencare Associates at Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Exercise: A recent study found that exercising three to five days a week had some efficacy in reducing cramping, Bummer says. "This also probably works by increasing blood flow and thereby better oxygenation to the uterus," he explains.
Lavender oil: There is some evidence that inhaling lavender essential oil help with migraines, Bummer says.
Acupuncture: This seems to work for some women, Bummer says. But it can be expensive.
Dietary supplements: Magnesium, vitamin B1, fish oil, vitamin E and ginger have shown some promise in studies, says Dr. Alexander Chiang, an ob-gyn and an assistant clinical profe—ssor at the University of California. The caveat: the studies are all small and some are not randomized.
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Medications that can ease the pain:
Birth control pills: Oral contraceptives can help with both cramping and headaches, Bummer says. But there are some women whose migraines become worse with oral contraceptives. Another benefit to the pill is that periods tend to be lighter when women are on it. "I'd say 75 to 80 percent of women have some relief when their hormones are stabilized," Chiang notes.
Progesterone only IUDs: These can help with cramping, Chiang says. And a big advantage is that the amount of hormones involved are 20 times less than when you take them orally. Related: 5 things you need to know about IUDs, hormone implants
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS): These medications can help with both headaches and cramping. NSAIDS include ibuprofen, which is sold under brand names like Advil or Motrin and naproxen (Aleve). Because they target prostaglandins, they get right to the root of what's causing cramping. Combining NSAIDs with a heating pad can speed the relief, Chiang says. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration strengthened warnings about heart risks linked to NSAIDS like ibuprofen, so avoid taking multiple medications with the same ingredient. If the recommended dosage isn't easing your pain, call your doctor to see if a higher dose would be safe to take.