Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am deeply passionate about teaching women how to have healthier menstrual cycles. As menstruating women, we spend an average of one out of every four weeks of our lives on our period. That ends up being a quarter of our lives, between menarche and menopause, spent actively bleeding! To me, menstruation is SO significant, I can’t understand why we don’t all talk about it all of the time!
Today, I am writing with the hopes of helping those women out there who suffer from painful menstrual cramps. In one study aimed to determine how MANY women suffer from dysmenorrhea (clinical term for menstrual pain) it was determined that 84% of the participating women experienced some pain, with over 40% of them having that pain every month. I know from speaking to women, that the pain that some endure with every period can be severe enough to completely disrupt their daily lives, leaving them with no choice but to skip school or work and stay curled up in bed with a heating pad. Some women also deal with nausea, vomiting and migraines on top of the immense pain. The pain can also radiate into their lower back and down their legs. It’s no wonder that when you search for “painful periods” on Google, we have comics such as this one below come up, illustrating how awful of an experience some women have every month.
Sometimes high doses of non-steroidal anti-imflammatories (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen) can be helpful in relieving painful cramps, and many women are prescribed birth control as a means to reduce their pain and lessen their heavy bleeding. However, NSAIDs and birth control both come with side effects. As more and more studies show the long-term side effects of analgesics such as NSAIDs and birth control, more and more of us are searching for other ways to manage menstrual pain.
Etiology: Why menstrual cramps happen
In the Western medicine world, there are two types of painful menstruation: pain and cramping that is caused by an underlying condition such as endometriosis or fibroids, or pain and cramping that is happening for no known reason.
In Chinese Medicine, we see many different etiologies that can lead to painful periods, and some of the more common etiologies we see have to do with cold stagnating blood in the uterus, and liver qi & liver blood stagnation. Stagnation, or what happens when things aren’t moving freely, can cause pain in the body. When our qi stagnates, it causes cramping pain that comes and goes. When our blood stagnates, it causes stabbing pain (hello menstrual cramps!) that is fixed in one place. We need our qi and blood to flow smoothly, everywhere in our body but importantly in our uteruses, in order to be pain free.
In the case of cold causing stagnant blood in the uterus, cold either from the outside (being exposed to cold temperatures for a period of time, including sitting on the cold ground) or cold from eating cold foods (raw foods, iced foods) can get into the uterus causing the blood flow to slow down and become impeded. This causes a state of stagnation which can result in cramps and blood clots. The best way to treat cold in the uterus is to use heat, to warm up the area and displace the cold so that the movement of qi and blood can regain its smooth nature.
In the case of liver qi stagnation, the liver, which is very closely related to the menstrual cycle, is exhibiting signs of unhappiness, which is affecting its ability to govern the smooth flow of blood in the uterus. Liver health is extremely important to menstrual health, and most women with menstrual difficulties need help regulating their livers in order to regulate their menstruation. The liver is easily affected by lack of exercise, emotional backlog, alcohol, environmental toxins (especially toxins that act like estrogen in the body) and improper eating of fried and fatty foods. Women who have painful periods and exhibit more of a pattern of liver qi stagnation may also experience PMS symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, depression, painful breasts, cramps that take place before bleeding begins, bloating, digestive distress associated with menses, headaches, and pain in the intercostal region.
The good news about cold stagnating the uterus and liver qi & blood stasis causing painful menstrual cramps is that the wisdom of Chinese Medicine can help!
Here are some tips that you can begin to apply NOW to help your menstrual flow and reduce your experience of menstrual cramps:
If a hot water bottle helps your cramps (even a little bit) you may have cold in your uterus:
1) Start applying heat for four days BEFORE your period is supposed to start. Use a hot water bottle or heating pad once a day for the four days prior to your period starting, in order to help ease the pain that is to come.
2) Drink a cup of ginger tea for four days BEFORE period starts. Ginger is warming, can reduce pain, and can also ease digestive upset. You can add other warming spices and herbs to this tea blend if ginger doesn’t suit your taste.
3) Get more blood flow to your uterus while you’re not on your period. Acupuncture and moxibustion therapy are extremely helpful in reducing menstrual cramps of all etiologies. Chinese herbs are also extremely helpful. Another useful technique is the Arvigo technique of Maya Abdominal Massage.
If your cramps start before your period begins, and you have raging PMS, you probably have liver qi stagnation.
1) Exercise is very important during the week before your period. Once your period starts, however, put your feet up and rest. Your body is doing enough as it is to expel your endometrium lining and you don’t need to exercise on top of it!
2) Cut back on coffee and caffeinated beverages the week before & during your period. Coffee especially can irritate the liver and cause cramps to be worse.
3) What is your environmental toxin load like? Are you surrounding yourself with chemicals when there are healthier, less hormone disrupting alternatives?
3) Check in with your feelings: are you angry? resentful? sad or scared? The Liver is associated with anger, but oftentimes any emotional backlog can also clog up our Livers causing a range of moodiness, anxiety and depression. Oftentimes there will be some big feelings to feel underneath the cloud of anxiety or depression.
4) Try using pads instead of tampons and Mooncups. Women I know who have switched to pads have reported less cramping on their period. I believe this is because anything inserted in the vagina impedes the flow of menstrual blood. Some women I’ve worked with feel like simply switching from tampons to pads totally changed their cramps and their relationship with their period!
5) Acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Again, acupuncture, moxibustion therapy and Chinese herbs can do great things to support the Liver and all of the body systems to promote a healthier period and a less painful flow.
Disclaimer: the information presented in this blog post is intended to inform, not to treat, diagnose or take the place of medical advice. Please consult your qualified health practitioner for any health issue you or your child may be having. The disclaimer also provides that no warranties are given in relation to the information supplied on the website, and that no liability will accrue to Two Trees Healing Center in the event that a user suffers loss as a result of reliance upon the information.