If your periods are interfering with your life, seek advice
Menstrual cramps happen when the womb’s muscular wall tightens to encourage its lining to shed, says Dr Caroline Overton, a consultant gynaecologist and a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “The pain sensation is due to the contraction of the wall compressing blood vessels, which temporarily cuts off the blood supply, and thus oxygen, to the womb.” Overton stresses that periods should not regularly interfere with everyday life or work. “If you are having to change the way you dress, miss work or social activities and plan your life around your periods, then your periods are not normal.” It is thought that up to 20% of women have severe, disruptive period pain. GPs may suggest the combined oral contraceptive pill or a contraceptive implant, injection or hormonal coil.
Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are often enough for many women, says Dr Anita Mitra, a gynaecologist and the author of The Gynae Geek, and, as long as they are taken at the correct dosage, the two can safely be taken together. A 2012 study looking at the effect of ginger on painful menstrual cramping found that it had a statistically significant effect in relieving intensity and duration of pain. Those in the study group who took ginger powder reported less pain and severity than those in the placebo group, suggesting that it could be effective if taken at the onset of menstruation or three days beforehand.
Although there is not much evidence that sex and orgasm help to manage menstrual cramps, says Overton, it is possible to feel a temporary alleviation of pain as muscles relax post-orgasm. “It is not dangerous for women to masturbate or have sex during their period, so if it makes them feel good, they should go ahead.” Mitra agrees that, for some women, this can be helpful, due to neurotransmitters that seem to distract nerve fibres involved in period pain. She adds that there is still a need to use contraception to protect against pregnancy and STIs if you are having sex during a period.
Try some gentle exercise
“Various studies have shown that women who exercise may experience less painful periods, but it’s important to point out that these women exercised throughout the month,” says Mitra, although she says women should not feel bad about not exercising during their period if they don’t feel like it. The NHS suggests gentle exercises such as swimming, walking or cycling. Massage and relaxation techniques such as yoga or Pilates can also be helpful for managing period pain, says Overton.
Stay hydrated and use heat
“Dehydration can make cramps worse, so women should ensure they drink plenty of water, and consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation,” says Overton. As well as helping with hydration, herbal tea can be beneficial. Heatcan also be effective in alleviating cramps. A warm bath or shower, or a hot-water bottle can be helpful, as can heated patches and creams to relieve muscle pain.