It seems inevitiable that most women will experience period pain (dysmenorrhea) at some point time in their life.
Muscle cramps associated with dysmenorrhea are usually felt around the stomach, but pain can also be felt in the back and thigh areas. Pain can take the form of spasms or a dull ache; it varies between individuals and month to month, too.
While mild uterus contractions (tightening) happen all the time, and usually can’t be felt, pain can occur when the walls of the uterus contract more strongly than usual during menstruation. It does this to shed the uterus lining. This happens monthly or so until perimenopause or menopause when menstruation ceases when a woman reaches her early fifties or so.
Pains occurs when blood vessels are squeezed or compressed as the uterus lining sheds. The process of contraction temporarily cuts off the blood supply to the cells of the uterus. Detecting a lack of oxygen, the cells release chemicals which trigger pain.
As pain-triggering chemicals are released, so are other substances called prostaglandins. These encourage even stronger contractions of the muscles of the uterus; increasing pain levels and also triggering inflammation.
We don’t know why pain varies between individuals and month to month in the same women. But what we do know is that those who experience a lot of period pain may be due to a high build-up of prostaglandins triggering stronger contractions.
Pain associated with periods may also be caused by an underlying medical condition, so it is important to see your GP if you are having severe pain, or pain lasting longer than usual, or have noticed your periods become irregular or if you are worried in any way.
A number of key nutrients and herbs have been used in the treatment of dysmenorrhea. These include:
Thiamine (vitamin B1) taken at a concentration of 100mg orally was studied in one large, well-controlled study; positive pain-relieving results were shown. In another double-blind clinical trial, thiamine helped to reduce both the intensity of pain and its duration when on its own and in combination with fish oil.
A mineral that reduces inflammation by inhibiting prostaglandins and enhancing blood flow to the uterus. Research has shown that supplementing with 50mg zinc sulphate twice a day for four days before menstruation may reduce the need for pain medication.
The herb Viburnum opulus, popularly known as cramp bark, has been traditionally used to ease spasmodic cramping in western herbal medicine (WHM). Herbalists often combine it with the herb corydalis for pain relief.
Corydalis ambigua (corydalis) is a member of the poppy family and is commonly used herbs for period pain. The root of corydalis is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) staple, used to reduce inflammatory pain associated with menstrual cramps and is used to invigorate the blood and regulate qi.
Like it’s cousin, turmeric, ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It has been used in Ayurvedic and TCM. Add to smoothies and curries, soups and to green tea. The use of ginger has been shown to be an effective painkillers for the treatment of period pain.
Jamaican dogwood is traditionally used in WHM as an analgesic, that may help in instances of period pain. It is also used to support the nervous system and provide relief from insomnia.
A member of the buttercup family native to North America, black cohosh has been used by native Americans for menstrual irregularities. It is traditionally used in WHM to relieve premenstrual symptoms, reduce the pain associated with menstruation and ease nervous tension.
Dysmenorrhea is a common problem for many women and one that obviously recurs monthly to some extent. It can be empowering for women to know that there are alternatives outside of just using traditional over-the-counter pain relievers and that it is possible to reduce, or in some cases, relieve this issue for sufferers.
- Proctor ML, Murphy PA. Herbal and dietary therapies for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2001;(3):CD002124. [Full Text]
- Trickey R. Period pain. Aust J Med Herb 1998;10(1):14-21.
- Sangestani G, Khatiban M, Marci R, et al. The positive effects of zinc supplements on the improvement of primary dysmenorrhea and premenstrual symptoms: a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. JMRH 2015;3(3):378-384. [Full Text]
- Cramp bark. Medicines Complete [online]. London: Pharmaceutical Press. [Source]
- Chen HY, Lin YH, Su IH, et al. Investigation on Chinese herbal medicine for primary dysmenorrhea: implication from a nationwide prescription database in Taiwan. Complement Ther Med 2014;22(1):116-125. [Abstract]
- Ozgoli G, Goli M, Moattar F. Comparison of effects of ginger, mefenamic acid, and ibuprofen on pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea. J Altern Complement Med 2009;15(2):129-132. [Abstract]
- Jamaican dogwood. Natural Medicines comprehensive database. [Source]
- Monograph: black cohosh. Health Canada 2008. [Source]