Painful Periods: Common But Not Necessary

If you experience pain around the time of your period, you are not alone! Millions of women—up to 90% of all reproductive-aged women according to one study— suffer from moderate to severe pain before, during or after their periods. This condition, known medically as dysmenorrhea, usually refers to lower abdominal and pelvic pain prior to the onset of a period but can also include migraines, low back pain, and breast tenderness. Many women experience severe enough pain that they have to miss school or work or have trouble keeping up with routine daily activities. Sound familiar?

Have you spoken with a medical doctor about your painful periods? In spite of how common period pain is, there are few effective treatment options available—something you may have already found out the hard way! 

The Western Medical Approach to Dysmenorrhea

Period pain has become so normalized in Western cultures that many women don’t think to mention it at yearly physicals or OB/GYN visits. 

The typical treatment protocol for painful periods (if no underlying condition, such as endometriosis, is present) includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and oral contraceptive (birth control) pills. In about 10% of women suffering from period pain, these treatments prove ineffective, and these medications can have unwanted side effects.

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“Cramps” according to Western medicine:  In Western terms, menstrual cramps occur when a woman’s body produces an increased amount of endometrial prostaglandins, leading to more frequent and intense uterine contractions prior to and during their period. When prostaglandin levels are too high, they can contribute to inflammation, swelling and pain, which is why NSAIDs are a primary course of treatment. 

If NSAIDs don’t work for your premenstrual or menstrual pain, you may be frustrated by the dead end of Western treatment options! If you are open to trying something new, regular acupuncture treatments and Traditional East Asian herbal medicine may alleviate some, if not all, of your period pain over time. 

Acupuncture for Dysmenorrhea: A Patient-Centered Approach

In an acupuncturist’s view, period pain may be very common but is NOT a necessary part of menstruating.  

Many studies show that, over time, regular acupuncture treatments can eliminate or at least improve menstrual pain—and therefore improve the quality of life in women who had previously suffered from debilitating period pain.

Whether you rate your period pain as 11 out of 10 or it’s merely an annoyance that distracts you from work or school, an acupuncturist will look at your symptoms from an individual, patient-centered perspective. While “dysmenorrhea” may be the reason 20 patients visit an acupuncturist, their treatment plans will vary widely based on health history, other symptoms, such as migraines before periods or breast tenderness, and myriad additional information the acupuncturist gathers through extensive diagnostic questioning. 

Why does the acupuncturist ask so many questions? What is the color of your menstrual blood? Are there clots? Do you poop every day? Do you run either hot or cold? While these questions might be uncomfortable or seem like too much information at first, your acupuncturist uses your answers to formulate a complete, often complex, picture of certain factors that might be contributing to your period pain. 

When pain is involved, your acupuncturist is likely trying to figure out where there might be stagnation in your body, considered the root cause of pain by most practitioners.  

Something is Stuck! The Root of Pain 

There is a saying in Traditional East Asian Medicine: Where there is no movement, there is pain, and where there is movement, there is no pain. This lack of movement is the root of your period pain. But what is stuck?

If you visit an acupuncturist, you will likely hear us talk about  “Qi” and blood. Blood flows through our circulatory system and Qi moves through the body’s meridian system, a complex network of pathways in the fascia that communicate around the body. If Qi or blood are stuck when they should be flowing, we feel pain.  

Stagnant Qi and blood mean that your body has to work extra hard to break down your endometrial lining before your period, or to move blood out of the body during your period. By helping the body break down the lining and move the blood out more easily, you can feel less pain with your period.  

What causes things to get stuck? Acupuncturists consider many different factors when determining the root cause of a woman’s painful periods and design treatments to restore balance and flow in each individual. Emotions, diet, lifestyle and family history are some factors that may play a role in your acupuncturists diagnosis and treatment plan. 

Some people are too fatigued or too cold – their bodies don’t have enough “oomph”, so blood and Qi become stuck. 

For some, diet is a big factor. Eating a lot of “damp” foods like dairy, sugar, alcohol and processed carbs can create fluid accumulation that can keep blood and Qi from flowing properly.

For most people, moderate exercise helps period cramps. For people who tend to be on the drier side, however, too much intense exercise can also create stagnation. Those people may benefit from more yin activities like yoga and stretching.

If you suffer from painful periods, you don’t have to figure it out on your own! Your acupuncturist can help to figure out your underlying patterns and then address them with acupuncture, herbs, and lifestyle recommendations.  

References:

Coco AS. Primary dysmenorrhea. Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(2):489-496.

 Witt CM, Reinhold T, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture in patients with dysmenorrhea: a randomized study on clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness in usual care. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2008;198:166.e1-166.e8.

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