People who have periods are no strangers to pain and discomfort. The cramping, bloating and back tension that you may experience during those first few days of menstruation are a result of natural chemicals called prostaglandins, which make the uterus contract to help shed blood and tissue.
“Those contractions will squeeze some of the blood vessels supplying the uterus, so you have less oxygen flowing to the uterine muscle,” said Dr. Nita Landry, a board-certified physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology at the Valencia Center for Women’s Health in California and other practices across the country.
“That’s a problem because, as a general rule, the cells in your body don’t enjoy being deprived of oxygen.”
In other words, Landry said, period pain is “not all in your head.”
Everything from exercise and heat application to massage can help produce pain-blocking chemicals and manage discomfort, according to Dr. Monte Swarup, a board-certified OB-GYN in Arizona and the founder of the information platform Vaginal Health Hub.
That said, the level of discomfort you should experience has a limit. Pain that exceeds what’s considered normal could be a sign of a larger underlying issue such as endometriosis or primary dysmenorrhea, a common condition that involves higher levels of prostaglandins, according to Landry.
“Normal period pain consists of mild cramping that starts a few days before your period and ends by the time your period is over. The discomfort can be controlled with self-care measures like heating pads or over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium,” Landry said.
“Anything beyond that is too much pain. You definitely shouldn’t be missing school, work or social events because of your periods.”
Keep reading to see the various over-the-counter products and self-care measures that Landry, Swarup and other experts recommend to help manage period pain.
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A TENS muscle stimulator unit
The use of TENS devices — providing transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation — was listed by nearly all of our experts as a safe and effective pain management method. According to Landry, these muscle stimulators are a noninvasive, affordable and medicine-free option that can be worn discreetly under clothing, and they have done wonders for her patients.
"TENS involves attaching electrodes to the painful areas on your abdomen or lower back. The electrodes deliver small electrical currents to the body, which you’ll feel as a tingling, vibrating or muscle-twitching sensation," Landry said. "We believe that the device works by altering the body’s ability to receive and perceive pain signals, rather than having a direct effect on uterine contractions."
With over 7,000 five-star Amazon ratings, this particular unit offers 10 levels of intensities and six stimulation patterns, such as massaging and kneading functions. People with certain cardiac and health conditions may not be able to use a TENS device and should speak with their doctor first.
A weighted heating pad
The application of heat can do amazing things for reducing cramps, according to Dr. Monica Grover,
a double board-certified gynecologist based in New York and the chief medical officer at VSPOT,
a women's sexual health and wellness medispa.
"Whether through a heating pad or heated patch, [heat] is one of the best ways to relieve period cramps," Grover told HuffPost. "[It] helps promote blood flow, increases circulation and delivers that much-needed oxygen to your abdominal muscles. By helping relax your muscles, heating pads act as a natural way to relieve pain and pressure."
In addition to heat, this pad is weighted with an even layer of glass beads to provide a comfortable compressive element. You can choose from nine different heat levels, set an automatic shut-off time and machine-wash the entire soft flannel pad once you've detached the cord.
A 500-count bestselling and classic NSAID pain reliever
"When it comes to treating cramps and painful periods, medications are usually the first step," Swarup said. "NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are effective at lessening the effects of prostaglandins and making the cramps less painful.”
He added that common NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen are easily available over the counter. Individuals with certain bleeding disorders, stomach ulcers, kidney disease or asthma should talk to their doctor before taking NSAIDs.
Herbal heating patches
These fast-heating and ultrathin patches are great for reducing cramps or sore muscles while going about your everyday routine. They are infused with herbal ingredients like rose, lemon and jasmine oil to supplement the gentle warming therapy and offer up to eight hours of heat. Additionally, these pads adhere to undergarments, not skin, which means they won't slide off when you sweat.
A hands-free heating and massage band
In addition to heat, lower back massage can be highly effective in managing period pain, according to Landry.
This hands-free and battery-operated band wraps around your abdomen to provide lumbar support, soothing warmth and vibrational massage for targeted relief. You can choose from three different heat and massage settings and enjoy a run time of three to four hours per charge.
A pair of moisture-wicking period leggings
"While exercising with cramps may sound like torture, research shows that aerobic workouts like jogging, biking, swimming and walking release endorphins that are your body’s natural painkillers," Landry said.
These moisture-wicking period leggings from Thinx are great for yoga, jogging or even running errands. The absorptive gusset lining offers moderate protection and can hold up to three regular tampons' worth of fluid, while also helping to reduce odor and keep you feeling fresh and dry. The leggings also have two exterior pockets on the hips and an internal abdominal pocket for holding a heating pad.
Supplements that might assist with pain
Both Landry and Swarup said that although there isn't nearly enough research available to confirm their effectiveness for all people who try them, supplements like vitamin B complexes and magnesium may be helpful.
As is the case with all supplements, speak with your medical professional before using and, according to Landry, avoid vitamin B6 doses above 100 milligrams daily, as anything greater has the potential to cause nerve damage.