Most women experience some discomfort during their menstruation but for around one in ten women this pain is severe enough to prevent them doing their usual daily activities. There are two kinds of painful periods. The first, most common type is called primary dysmenorrhea and it normally occurs in young girls and teenagers who have just started their period and in women in their 20’s who have not yet had a baby.
Doctors aren’t sure why some girls get primary dysmenorrhea but it may be that their newly menstruating bodies are extra sensitive to the estrogen and prostaglandin hormones involved in menstruation. Over production of prostaglandin can cause the uterus to contract more strongly than it should when expelling its lining, causing pain similar to early labor pains.
This problem usually corrects itself as the girl gets older or is resolved after the woman has given birth to her first child.
The second type of painful period is called secondary dysmenorrhea and is more common in women aged 30 and over. It is usually related to a disease of the uterus, such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
However, if you are afflicted by painful periods, you needn’t suffer in silence. There are some things you can do to ease or stop your period pain.
1. Eating foods that are rich in niacin (vitamin B3) or taking a vitamin supplement regularly that contains niacin may stop your period pain. An old 1952 study found that niacin relieved the period pains of 87 percent of the women in the study. They had been given a 200 mg tablet per day. In a follow up study in 1954, they combined the niacin with 300 mg of vitamin C and 60 mg of the flavonoid rutin per day and achieved a 90 percent success rate at relieving period pain. Unfortunately no further research into niacin has been done since that time.
2. Making sure you get plenty of calcium in your diet is also important, as calcium helps maintain healthy muscle function and can improve the efficiency of your uterus in expelling menstrual products and thereby lessen the pain. You might also consider a supplement that contains calcium. A 1993 double blind study found that when women were given a calcium supplement, they reported less period pain.
3. Wear a magnet! A magnet worn on your underwear can increase the blood flow to your pelvic area and relieve period pain. Magnets are available from online stores but should not be worn if you have a pacemaker or you have had a joint replacement operation.
4. Have plenty of relaxing warm baths. Water is soothing for period pains. Using a lavender wheat bag, heated in a microwave or on a radiator and then placed on your abdomen, can help. A hot water bottle will also do.
5. Use a TENS machine. These are traditionally used by women in labor. Electrodes are placed on the lower back and tiny electrical pulses are passed through them. This sensation masks the uterine cramping and also stimulates the body’s natural production of endorphins, the body’s own painkiller. You should not use a TENS machine if you have a heart condition or a pacemaker fitted. You cannot use TENS machines with water.
6. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Movement increases blood flow, improving circulation and usually relieving pain. A 1998 study found that exercise eased period pains. For a few women, movement appears to make it worse, so experiment and see what works for you.
7. Get a friend or your partner to give you a back massage. This can relieve the lower back pain associated with periods. Spinal manipulation has helped some women. Some research showed that those who underwent spinal manipulation instead of the placebo treatment, had twice as much relief as the placebo group. Consider consulting a chiropractor or osteopath for an adjustment.
8. If you’re in a partnership, consider having a baby. This resolves many cases of primary dysmenorrhea.
9. Some painful and heavy periods are caused by the copper IUD. If you think your periods became worse after having the IUD put in, ask to have it removed.
10. If you are older and your periods have only just started to become painful, you may have secondary dysmenorrhea. See your doctor to rule out any other medical problems. If you have endometriosis or another condition, make sure you are getting the appropriate treatment as this could relieve painful periods.
Sources: Hudgins AP. Am Practice Digest Treat 1952;3:892–3, Hudgins AP. Vitamins P, C and niacin for dysmenorrhea therapy. West J Surg 1954;Dec:610–1, Penland J, Johnson P. Dietary calcium and manganese effects on menstrual cycle symptoms. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1993;168:1417–23, Bolomb LM, Solidmum AA, Warren MP. Primary dysmenorrhea and physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998;30:906–9 [review], Kokjohn K, Schmid D, Triano J, Brennan P. The effect of spinal manipulation on pain and prostaglandin levels in women with primary dysmenorrhea. J Manip Physiol Ther 1992;15:279–85.
Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting, in addition to running a charity for people damaged by vaccines or medical mistakes.