At AcuNatural Health in Brisbane, we see many women who have tried everything to reduce their period pain. They have seen their GP, tried the oral contraceptive pill, seen nutritionists and tried everything at home to reduce their pain and symptoms…
But still the pain affects their social, work or educational commitments each month.
This can have a big impact on relationships, work, educational and social opportunities, whether it means “not being present” for a toddler you love, or giving up opportunities to travel because of the need to be close to home.
But Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine can reduce period pain (Woo, 2018; Zhu et al. 2008). In this blog we explore period pain from a Western medical perspective, explain the theory behind a Chinese Medicine approach to treatment, and summerise the evidence of the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture and Chinese Herbal medicine to treat period pain.
What is period pain?
Period pain, or dysmenorrhea, is pain in the lower abdomen during the first few days of the period which interferes with everyday activities, many women find relief from period pain with Acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Period pain is very common. Between 25% and 50% of women, and up to 90% of adolescents, report pain which interferes with their daily lives.
Severe period pain can affect work, study, and social relationships. In one study, 51% of women reported they limited their activities due to period pain. 17% missed work or school due to severe pain.
Many women experience other symptoms. This may include; pain which spreads to the lower back, hips and thighs, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, bloating, breast tenderness, mood changes and headaches. Symptoms often appear one or two days before the period begins and peak during the first two days of the period.
Primary or secondary dysmenorrhea?
Period pain may be classified as primary or secondary dysmenorrhea.
Primary dysmenorrhea is period pain that has no underlying cause. Period pain which is caused by an underlying medical condition is called secondary dysmenorrhea. Some conditions which may cause period pain include:
- Uterine Fibroids;
- Pelvic inflammatory disease;
- Intrauterine devices (IUD).
It is important that women discuss moderate to severe period pain with their GP, to rule out any underlying medical condition.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine may still help relieve pain and symptoms- see our articles on endometriosis.
What causes period pain?
Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by the contractions of the muscular wall of the women, as the endometrial lining is shed. These contractions are natural and normal, but if the contractions are too strong or prolonged they can cause pain that can be moderate to severe.
The overproduction of vasopressin may contribute to painful cramps. Oestrogen stimulates the release of vasopressin. Progesterone counteracts the release of vasopressin. This means that an imbalance in ovarian hormones can contribute to period pain.
Pharmacological treatment for period pain includes NSAID’s and the oral contraceptive pill (OCP). However, NSAID’s have a high failure rate of 20-25%. Many women report that standard treatments do not give satisfactory pain relief, and their period pain continues to affect their everyday lives each month. NSAID’s may lead to gastrointestinal side effects.
How does Chinese medicine treat period pain?
In this paragraph we will consider period pain from a Chinese medicine perspective and summarise the evidence for acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulae to reduce period pain.
In Chinese medicine, the body has three “vital substances”, these are Qi, Blood and Jing.
Many people have heard of Qi- the energy which flows through and enlivens the body. The concept of Blood “Xue”, includes the physiological concept of ‘blood; but also includes the nutrients which flow through all the vessels of the body. A blockage or imbalance in the flow of blood and qi causes pain during the period. This may be because of a lack of Qi and Blood, causing stagnation like a river becoming too dry to flow freely. Or it may be due to a blockage of qi and blood caused by cold or phlegm- the product of inflammation. A third pattern which often contributes to period pain is ‘Liver qi stagnation’. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi and it if it’s functioning is impaired, period pain may result.
‘Jing’ is the vital substance of the Kidney’s, as we age we naturally deplete our ‘Jing’ and our fertility decreases, this can cause hormonal imbalances and period pain peri-menopause.
Evidence based medicine- acupuncture and herbal formula for period pain
A review of controlled trials found that acupuncture may reduce period pain and associated symptoms more effectively than NSAIDs or no treatment (Woo et al., 2018). This result was maintained some months after a series of acupuncture treatments, although further studies with long term follow up are required to confirm these results (Woo, 2018).
In another trial, acupuncture and electro-acupuncture were both found to reduce both the intensity of the pain and frequency of moderate and severe period pain (Woo, 2018).
Chinese herbal medicine can be very useful in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhoea. Reviews of controlled trials have found evidence Chinese herbal medicine is effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, compared to NSAIDs and the oral contraceptive pill (Zhu, 2008). This reduction in pain was significant 3 months after the end of treatment.
Herbal formulae’s are prescribed depending on the patients’ pattern. Herbs may aim to tonify or regulating the qi and blood, warm the Interior, or tonify the Kidney and Liver to ease the period pain (Zhu et al. 2008).
At AcuNatural Health, herbal formula are prescribed according to your individual pattern and the time of your cycle.
Easing period pain at home, naturally
There are many simple self-help techniques that can reduce period pain at home.
- heat packs or hot water bottles;
- warm baths or showers,
- gentle exercise or movement,
- gentle circular massage,
- TENS machines;
Herbal teas are also a simple remedy that can help. Ginger tea warms the body and promotes the smooth flow of qi. Safflower tea can help invigorate blood to smooth the menses and relieve pain. Use Safflower tea if you have sharp stabbing period pain, unrelieved by heat.
This article has a great evidence-based summary on different herbal teas to help ease period pain – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tea-for-cramps.
Lifestyle and dietary changes to ease period pain
Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle can also help reduce period pain.
Firstly, good nutrition can help period pain, ensure you have adequate iron and vitamin C to assist iron absobtion. Zinc supplementation of 30mg 2 days prior to menstruation until the end of the period has been shown to ease period pain (Farrah, Halim & Kaban, 2017).
Secondly, cut out smoking as it contributes to period pain by causing vasodilation and reducing blood flow to the uterus.
Thirdly, keep warm! Cold can also increase vasodilation and worsen cramps. Don’t just use a heat pack when your period arrives, try to keep warm throughout the month. Stay out of the wind and air conditioning drafts and wear multiple layers to help keep yourself warm. See if this simple change can reduce period pain for you.
Drink warm water or tea and eat warm foods. Warm foods are easier to digest and helps keep your abdomen warm.
Moxa or Artemesia vularis, is used in Chinese medicine, to add warmth to the body to relief pain. Moxa can be used at home with simple safety precautions- speak to your Chinese medicine practitioner before self treating with Moxa.
It is also important to abstain from sex during the period in Chinese medicine. This keeps blood flowing downwards and outwards at this time of the month.
At AcuNatural health we are happy to discuss simple changes to help relieve period pain.
If you have any questions about how Acupuncture, Chinese medicine or a combination of the two can relief your period pain, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss a treatment plan that suits you.
Pattanittum, P., Kunyanone, N., Brown, J., Sangkimkamhang, U.S., Barnes, J., Seyfoddin, C., Marjoribanks, J., (2016). Dietary supplements for dysmenorrhea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://doi.org.1002/14651858.CD002124.pub2
Woo, H.L., Ji, H.R. Pak, Y.K., Lee, H., Heo, S.J., Lee, J.M. & Park K.S. (2018). The efficacy and safety of acupuncture in women with primary dysmenorrhea: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine. 97(23):e11007. http://doi:10.1097/md.0000000000011007.
Zhu, X., Proctor, M., Bensoussan, A., Wu, E., Smith C.A. (2008). Chinese herbal medicine for primary dysmenorrhoea (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.