15 science-backed ways to relieve period cramps

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15 science-backed ways to relieve period cramps
You can relieve period cramp pain with simple, at-home remedies. Moyo Studio/Getty images
  • To relieve period cramps, apply heat to your lower stomach, drink water, and take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen.
  • Reducing stress during the first half of your cycle or starting hormonal birth control can also help with period cramps.
  • Physical activities that encourage blood flow, like exercise, massage, and masturbation, can also relieve pain.

About 80% of women in the US will have period cramps at some point, and for 5% to 10%, the pain is bad enough to interfere with their daily living.

Cramps feel like a painful tightening in the lower belly and back and typically last between 48 to 72 hours around the time you start bleeding.

Note: Period cramps happen because the muscles in your uterus are contracting. Each month, your body prepares for pregnancy by building up a lining on your uterus called the endometrium. If you don't get pregnant, your uterine muscles contract to shed that lining.

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Luckily, there are numerous natural home remedies and pain-relieving medications to treat menstrual cramps.

1. Apply heat

"Heat appears to relax the muscle wall, with improved blood flow reducing the cramps," says JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia Health.

A 2018 review of six studies found that women who placed a heating pad on their lower stomach for several hours during period cramps reported less pain than women who had no heat treatment.

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Moreover, two studies in the review found that using a heating pad actually helped more than taking a pain reliever like ibuprofen.

To apply heat, you can try:

  • Taking a hot bath
  • Applying a towel soaked with hot water
  • Using a heat-generating patch or electric heating pad

Quick tip: For best results, heat should be between 104 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit and should be used for at least four hours.

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2. Exercise regularly

"Exercise increases blood circulation, which helps cramps to go away," Pinkerton says.

This is because when blood is not circulating normally through your uterus, excess blood can build up in the uterine veins, causing them to painfully swell.

"Types of exercise most likely to be helpful include gentle, low-impact aerobic exercises, such as walking or swimming. Yoga may also be helpful," Pinkerton says.

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More vigorous exercise like running may also help, as it makes your body release endorphins, which lower your perception of pain. But many people may not feel up to this type of exercise during a painful period.

Quick tip: To ease cramps, it's best to exercise for 30 minutes per day starting a few days before your period and continuing through the first couple days of bleeding.

3. Reduce stress

"Many women report that psychological stress worsens menstrual cramps," Pinkerton says.

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This may be because when you become very worried or stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol that can increase muscle contractions in your uterus.

There are no studies on which stress-reduction techniques work best to relieve period cramps. But there are several methods you can try at home that are proven to lower cortisol, such as:

For this method to work best, you should aim to reduce stress during the first half of your menstrual cycle before you ovulate - and not just during your period.

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4. Avoid unhealthy foods

Certain foods may make period cramps worse, while others can help ease pain.

"Avoid salty and high fat or high carb foods," Pinkerton advises. These foods can cause bloating and inflammation, which can make period cramps more painful.

These are some of the foods you should avoid eating:

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  • Dairy-based smoothies and yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Fried chicken
  • French fries
  • Potato chips
  • White bread
  • Pastries

5. Eat healthy foods

Foods with key vitamins and minerals can have the opposite effect, helping to relieve period pain.

"Adequate nutrients include vitamins E, B1, and B6 as well as magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids to reduce muscle tension or inflammation," Pinkerton says.

You can get these nutrients by eating:

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  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Fatty fish like tuna and salmon

6. Stay away from caffeine

Caffeine narrows your blood vessels, restricting blood flow to your uterus, which may increase menstrual pain.

You can substitute caffeinated drinks with water, herbal tea, or decaf beverages. Tea that contains the herbs listed below may also help to relieve your pain.

7. Use herbs

With pain-relieving herbs, you can drink them in teas, add them to your food, or take herbal supplements.

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Kecia Gaither, MD, director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, says the following herbs are her favorites:

  • Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory that may help reduce your levels of prostaglandins, compounds that can cause pain. In a small 2009 study, women who took four ginger capsules daily for three days when their periods started experienced the same pain relief as women who took ibuprofen. Gaither says it can be taken as a powder, chopped up and made into a tea, or eaten as ginger candy.
  • Zinc is a mineral that also reduces inflammation. Gaither recommends taking it daily for four to five days before your period starts. The recommended daily amount of zinc for women is 8 mg per day.
  • Black cohosh was used long ago by Native Americans to relieve menstrual pain and continues to be promoted for this purpose - though there isn't much data regarding its effectiveness.

Quick tip: Herbal supplements don't require FDA approval, so be sure to get them from a reputable source, like a local pharmacy.

You should also make sure the herbs won't interfere with any medications you're taking.

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8. Drink more water

If you're dehydrated, the muscles in your uterus may cramp more.

Drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day also helps to flush your digestive system and may help alleviate some pain associated with water retention, Gaither says.

Moreover, "drinking warm or hot water helps with cramping," she adds.

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9. Take OTC medications

"The over-the-counter medications that I recommend most commonly for period pain are NSAIDs," says Selina Sandoval, MD, an OB-GYN Fellow at UC San Diego.

NSAIDs include ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Ibuprofen may also help make your period more comfortable by reducing your menstrual blood flow. It does this by reducing prostaglandins, the hormones that cause menstrual cramps as well as heavier bleeding.

You can safely take NSAIDs in combination with acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) for additional pain relief, says Sandoval.

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"Follow the instructions on the packaging or ask your doctor for safe dosing recommendations or if you have other health conditions that may affect your ability to take these medications," she says.

10. Start hormonal birth control

Using hormonal birth control - such as oral contraceptives or a patch, ring, or hormonal IUD - can help relieve cramps and reduce your blood flow, resulting in less discomfort.

Related Article Module: Yes, birth control helps with cramps and some methods are better

That's because hormonal birth control thins the endometrial lining of your uterus, which prevents severe cramps. It also helps by lowering the level of prostaglandins, the compounds that make your uterus muscles painfully contract.

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"For this to be effective, you must be using birth control regularly, prior to your cramps starting," Sandoval says.

11. Have an orgasm

When you orgasm, more blood flows to your uterus, which may help to relieve cramps.

Related Article Module: 6 tips for safe and enjoyable period sex

It also triggers your body to release the hormones dopamine and oxytocin, both being natural pain relievers.

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In a small 2020 "menstrubation" study by the sex tech company Womanizer, 42% of a pool of 486 women who masturbated over a three-month period said it worked better than medication to relieve period cramps. And 90% of the participants recommended masturbation for pain relief.

12. Get a massage

Getting a massage relaxes your muscles, which means fewer spasms. For the best results, the massage should focus on your abdominal area, Gaither says.

A small 2005 controlled clinical trial found that Korean women who received abdominal deep-tissue Kyung-Rak massage for five minutes every day from five days before menstruation to the day their periods started experienced significantly reduced menstrual cramps and pain.

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13. Try acupuncture

Acupuncture may be more effective at relieving menstrual pain than NSAIDs, according to 2018 review. The idea behind acupuncture is that by targeting certain areas of the body, called acupoints, you release endorphins - natural pain-relieving chemicals.

Acupressure, which uses firm pressure instead of needles to stimulate acupoints, may also help relieve period pain.

A 2017 study of 221 German women found that those who performed acupressure on themselves for five days before the start of six consecutive menstrual periods had significantly less pain than those who didn't use acupressure. The three acupoints were:

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  • SP-6 (San Yin Jiao) on the inside of their lower legs
  • LI-4 (He Gu) between their thumbs and index fingers
  • LR3 (Tai Chong) between their big toes and second toes

14. Rest

Your period comes with a significant drop in your level of progesterone, a hormone that helps you relax. Although this may affect your ability to get a good night's sleep, it's important to stay well rested.

To get the rest you need, it may help to practice what's called good sleep hygiene. This involves taking actions like trying to go to bed at the same time each night, avoiding caffeine, and reducing the light and noise in your bedroom.

To help relieve menstrual pain, sleeping in the fetal position - on your side with your arms and legs tucked in - may reduce pressure on your abdominal muscles and ease cramping.

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"Rest is important to help your body through stressful times, including when your body experiences pain," Sandoval says.

Quick tip: In general, the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

15. See a doctor

It's time to see a doctor when - after trying the remedies above - your period pain is interfering with your ability to complete your daily activities, like going to school or work, Sandoval says.

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You should also see your doctor if you have severe pelvic pain, rectal pain, or dizziness during your period, Gaither advises, or if blood is soaking through your pads even though you're changing them frequently.

These symptoms could be a sign of an underlying health condition, such as:

Insider's takeaway

If you experience painful menstrual cramps each month, try several of these remedies - like improving your diet, exercising more often, and applying heat - to find what provides you the most relief.

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"I encourage my patients to do whatever makes them feel best and is safe," Sandoval says.

But if the pain is still interfering with your ability to enjoy life, talk to your health care provider so that you can rule out any underlying health issues or, if necessary, begin treatment.

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