Period pain sucks, end of story. Over time, we’ve become inventive with ways of dealing with it because what works for one person, doesn’t work for another. While my friend swears by paracetamol, I might as well be popping jelly beans.
There are plenty of period pain busting products on offer and nutritionist-approved remedies to try out. Our current methods of dealing with menstrual pain are typically viewed through the lens of Western medicine. But Eastern medicine also has a wealth of knowledge that we can tap into when it comes to coping with menstrual cycles.
Here, we chat to AHPRA registered Chinese medicine practitioner and reproductive health educator Michelle Smith as well as Kin Fertility doctor Dr. Gabrielle Georgiou about how we can best tackle menstrual cramps.
Is period pain normal?
Dr. Georgiou stresses that period pain can be very normal, though not everyone will experience it.
“[Dysmenorrhoea is a] type of pain [that’s] considered ‘normal’ if it is there for the first one to three days of your period (when your bleeding is heaviest) and you are still able to do all your regular daily activities while you have the pain,” she tells Refinery29 Australia, adding that it usually gets better as you age.
Where this normality ends is where other medical conditions begin, like endometriosis or adenomyosis. “It is important that if period pain is severe, if it is stopping you from carrying out your regular activities, or if the normal pattern of your period changes, to please seek attention from your regular GP,” Georgiou says.
However, if we’re dealing in the realm of ‘normal’ period pain, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) contextualises it in a different way. TCM believes that menstruation is connected to yin and yang (the philosophy of balance), as well as ‘qi’ (the vital energy of the body). With that in mind, aiming for an internal balance is paramount in managing menstruation pain.
"Chinese medicine [suggests] that period pain is not normal — the period comes and goes with as much ease as the sun rises and sets. Chinese medicine teaches us that symptom-free periods should really be the rule and painful periods are the exception,” Smith shares.
What can we do to minimise period pain?
Yin and yang are representative of cold and hot temperatures of the body. During our periods, TCM suggests that warmth is one tool we can harness to minimise — or potentially prevent — pain.
“A major strategy to avoid painful periods and period-related symptoms in Chinese medicine is to keep the womb warm,” explains Smith. “In TCM, cold is considered stagnating, and when the blood isn't flowing smoothly, pain typically manifests — that's why we instinctively reach for heat packs when we have painful periods. But we shouldn't just reach for warmth when we have pain, but we should also be keeping our womb warm throughout the whole cycle to prevent pain.”
She particularly points out that our feet need to be kept warm and encourages hot foot baths and wearing socks. “[It] keeps the kidney channel warm (the kidney channel starts on the base of the foot and is linked to fertility).”
Georgiou says that heat applied around the stomach area or lower back can be effective in reducing period pain, but notes that there have only been a few large-scale trials completed looking at this. “Taking a warm bath or shower, or meditating, may also help to relieve stress and pain,” she adds.
Exercise is a remedy that’s recommended in both Western and Eastern medicine. In TCM, exercise is said to increase the production of qi and blood and practitioners recommend 20 to 30 minutes of exercise every second day, though it’s worth noting that this will vary depending on where you are on your menstrual cycle.
“Physiotherapists have utilised yoga to good effect, and physiotherapy itself was found to be useful in reducing the intensity of patients' period pain,” says Georgiou.
Acupuncture and herbal medicine are also encouraged in TCM. There isn't much research behind the two, though both are potentially “promising” according to Georgiou.
“There is some evidence that acupuncture may be more effective than no treatment or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the short-term for period pain. Chinese herbal medicine has shown some promising evidence for helping improve period pain, however, the results of these studies are limited due to the poor methodological quality of some of these trials.”
What should we avoid?
Following the advice that encourages heat to counter pain, it makes sense that people should avoid the cold. Smith explains that this logic should be applied to all areas of our life, from the clothes we wear to what we eat.
“The midriff trend is not good for menstrual health [because we know] that the womb should be warm,” she says. “Going swimming while on your period is a big no in Chinese medicine because [it’s believed] the womb is open during menstruation and cold can invade it which might result in period pain.”
“Drinking ice cold water or ice cream and loads of salads can also bring cold into the body — it might sound super abstract but these things actually make a huge difference to the menstrual cycle. Now, I am not saying that someone with endometriosis and 10/10 period pain is going to have all of their pain resolved by switching to warm water, but it can make a difference. Chinese medicine is all about making incremental differences that over time contribute to a huge shift in quality of life,” she says.
This article is designed to be informative and is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your regular health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as of April 2022.