An “off” button for menstrual cramps seems like something we’d be sold in a Netflix reimagining of The Jetsons, where a teenage Judy Jetson simply taps a button before leaping into her flying car and going off to space school. But recently, devices that promise to simply zap the pain away have shown up in my Instagram ads. The language is often (perhaps intentionally) vague, and the promises so lofty that I wouldn’t blame you if you swiped by and rolled your eyes. But while it seems like the ads are promising a cramp cure with good vibes and trendy colors, the word “zap” is actually your biggest clue to what it does do. Using a gel adhesive pad, the device actually conducts small electronic currents to your muscles, confusing your nervous system and even causing cramping muscles to calm down. This technology has been used for different types of pain, including menstrual cramps, for a long time, says Heather Bartos, MD, an ob-gyn and educator.
“These devices work similarly to a TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), which creates a small electrical current to ‘grab’ the muscle and then release it," she explains. But, much like other Insta-friendly gear, such as period underwear and menstrual cups, these TENS-style devices have only recently gone mainstream.
Electrocurrent gadgets for cramps were on the edge of my awareness when a fellow R29 Shopping team member asked if anyone would be interested in reviewing the Aura device from wellness brand Vush. I’ve had severe cramps (and been trying to deal with them) since I was 14. I’ll try anything once, from questionable herbal supplements to PT massage (and just about every form of hormonal birth control out there). Currently, a combo of progesterone-estrogen birth control pills, a lot of ibuprofen, and a heating pad are my best defenses, but hope springs eternal.
[Psst — use promo code REFINERY25 for 25% off through July 29, 2022. The code is only valid for the Aura.]
Before I explain how the Aura felt, I’ll do my best to explain where we’re starting from. Imagine the low, concentrated pain of really, really having to pee so much it hurts. Then imagine that intensified without the option to actually pee to get relief. That is how my cramps have been, without fail, once a month since I was 13. Now imagine if that bladder/uterus pain were an uninvited, violent houseguest you couldn’t get rid of. Suddenly, another strange guest shows up. They don’t seem to understand personal space and want to tell you about the Dune sequels, but they’re not exactly… bad. Then, instead of leaving, the violent gest simply goes into another room to keep screaming and punching the walls, but you can’t really fully take it in because the newer, stranger guest won’t stop explaining cryptocurrency to you.
The overwhelmingly weird but not unpleasant guest in question is, of course, the electrical currents being delivered to my uterus. Some TENS-style devices have gel pads you can position as necessary that then attach by wire to the actual battery-powered unit, which can then be tucked into a pocket or held. The Aura is more compact, with two gel pads coming directly off the “hub,” allowing the entire system to secure to your skin and even be worn under clothes. When I last started to feel cramps, I placed the pads directly on my skin over where the pain was most intense and turned it on. (Side note: Make sure you put it on first then turn it on. You can feel the electrical pulses through your fingers as well, and it's not fun.)
Once the Aura is on, you can toggle between types of electro currents and levels of intensity. The types of currents include tapping, pricks meant to imitate acupuncture, and a kind of rolling-waves sensation like in a massage chair. It didn’t hurt, and it immediately diminished my cramps, but it was just always there, just a low-level buzz right over my womb.
Describing how the Aura feels reminds me of describing the feeling of getting a tattoo or a leg wax. When a friend would ask how it went, I said something like, “Well, it felt like someone was holding an ink-filled needle to my body/pulling my hair out by the roots.” Turns out, low-level electrical bursts feel exactly like you’d imagine them to feel: not exactly a shock, but not like a pleasant massage, either. I could sometimes sort of forget they were there, but I never felt the release from pain that a dose of Liqui-Gels might get you. Vush also states that the device can “encourage endorphins,” though I saw no such side effect. Occasionally, I would have moments of brief breathlessness as if my body was suddenly remembering something was attached to it and zapping it. And that was in the few moments I could briefly forget I was getting uterus shocks.
Despite the underwhelming and odd experience, I still see the appeal. I have no problem taking ibuprofen, and, since I work from home, I can curl up with a heating pad when I need to. While Dr. Bartos notes someone taking Advil or other painkillers as recommended during their period won’t “overdose,” she adds that many cramp sufferers are looking for alternatives to just popping pills.
“Women are getting hip to it that taking a Midol each month isn’t fixing the real problem,” Bartos says. “I have women looking for all kinds of alternatives — acupuncture, heat therapy, etc.” If you don’t have the option to hug a heating pad plugged into the wall, I can also imagine Aura being used in conjunction with, rather than instead of, painkillers. While waiting for the medicine to start working, you could put on the Aura and let it keep the worst of the cramps at bay. In fact, Bartos recommends TENS-style devices like Aura in combo with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like Advil or Midol, for medium to severe cramps. For milder cramps, Aura indeed may be an “off” button, and Bartos says many of her patients have used it with success.
Ultimately, Aura might not have been the Holy Grail for my own cramps. But I’m also glad it exists, and it could help other sufferers — non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and heating pads were the only names of the game for a long time, and people are clearly relishing the additional choice. It also gives me hope that maybe someday, a new weird and flashy product will show up that might be my hidden cure for cramps. Like Bartos says, a “one-size-fits-all” approach is about as outdated as women cartwheeling while wearing all white in a '90s tampon ad, and I’m glad those days (if not my cramps) are behind us.
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