8 Ways To Get Rid of Period Cramps That Actually Work

Life's too short to spend another day curled in the fetal position clutching your belly.

If your period sidelines you with painful cramps every month, you've got plenty of company. About 50% of women of reproductive age deal with period pain, medically known as dysmenorrhea. Healthcare providers believe the cramps are caused by chemicals called prostaglandins—which trigger contractions in the uterus that help the body shed the uterine lining every month.

Fluctuating hormones, along with high levels of inflammatory compounds, may also contribute to menstrual cramps. And for some women with severe period pain, conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis (when the inner lining of the uterus breaks through the muscular uterine wall), or uterine fibroids may play a role. "This is something that many women live with, and for some women, it's quite severe," said Brett Worly, MD, obstetrician-gynecologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

If the pain is so bad it makes a major dent in your daily life, talk to your healthcare provider to rule out a serious underlying cause, Dr. Worly suggested. If you get an all-clear and need easy cramp relief strategies that really work, give these expert-backed remedies a try for temporary or long-term pain reduction.

Eat a Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diet

Dietary fiber and fats play a role in the experience of dysmenorrhea; it comes down to estrogen levels. In an April 2021 study published in Nutrients, researchers indicated that "fiber intake reduces blood estrogen levels, whereas fat has been associated with increased estrogen levels."

In that sense, foods that may help with period cramps include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (especially leafy greens). Adding more of these foods to your diet can also help improve digestion in the long run, which may help minimize stomach pain and cramping at any time of the month.

Take OTC Pain Meds—Even Before Your Period Starts

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "[n]onsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are considered to be the first line of treatment for dysmenorrhea." Specifically, NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) act by blocking prostaglandin production, and several studies have shown that they can be very effective in treating menstrual pain.

A March 2022 study from the Korean Journal of Family Medicine provides evidence for this. Using 80 randomized controlled trials, the researchers conducted a systematic review regarding the NSAID effectiveness with primary dysmenorrhea. They found that, compared to placebo treatments in those trials, NSAIDS were 4.5 times more helpful for those experiencing dysmenorrhea.

"Sometimes it can also be helpful to start taking those medicines before your period starts—so if you know it's going to start on a Friday, start taking those medicines on Thursday," Dr. Worly added.

Dial Back Your Stress Level

Another factor in period pain is stress. A March 2022 Journal of College of Medical Sciences-Nepal study focused on how dysmenorrhea affected 100 female medical students. Based on the participants' responses to a self-report questionnaire, the researchers found a strong positive correlation between dysmenorrhea and stress.

Audra Gollenberg, PhD, an associate professor of public health at Shenandoah University, recommended making time on the regular for self-care and stress-busting activities, from meditation to outings with friends. "Stress has been shown to affect reproductive hormones, so it makes sense that it could affect your period, too," Gollenburg said. "Stress reduction is very individual, but anything that helps you handle stressful situations may help reduce discomfort at this time of the month."

Keep a Heating Pad Handy

The use of heating pads is a typical practice for those who experience dysmenorrhea. "For some women, using a heating pad or taking a hot bath or shower can provide some relief from period pain," Dr. Worly said.

Researchers from a November 2021 study published in BMC Women's Health conducted a cross-sectional study that included 550 female university students. When it came to relieving dysmenorrhea, 74.8% of the students used non-medicinal methods—with 16.45% of them using heating pads. Additionally, applying heating pads was among the top options in this category associated with lower pain scores.

Don't Skip the Gym

Working out may be the last thing you feel like doing when your period starts, but there's good reason to push through. "High-intensity exercise when you have really bad cramps isn't necessarily going to make you feel better right away," Dr. Worly said. "But in the long run, studies show that women who exercise regularly and stay fit tend to have less pelvic pain overall."

A June 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Nursing and Health noted that "research…states that physical exercise…can increase blood flow in the pelvis and stimulate endorphins in the body to have an impact on reducing pain scale."

In other words, getting your heart rate up and your body moving really could have some immediate benefits. "Exercise can release endorphins, which is the body's natural pain medicine," Dr. Worly said. If you're not feeling up to something as intense as kickboxing class, try yoga and deep breathing.

Consider Hormonal Birth Control

Taking birth-control pills or using another form of hormonal contraception prevents ovulation, which can make a big difference for people who have endometriosis and have issues related to severe cramps every month as a result.

But even women with normal periods may notice that their cramps go away or aren't quite so bad when they start taking hormonal birth control. "Contraception can help regulate hormone levels and decrease extreme fluctuations, which can be helpful," Dr. Worly explained.

Take Magnesium

The market for supplements that claim to help period pain is full of vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies—but most have very little or no evidence that they make a difference. One exception: magnesium. A 2021 study from the Innovation in Health for Society noted—in discussing how dark chocolate contains magnesium—that "high magnesium…can reduce menstrual pain in women."

More research is needed in order to recommend an effective dosage, researchers said, and popping too much of the supplement can cause a dangerous heart arrhythmia. Talk with your healthcare provider before you start taking any new supplement, or aim to get more magnesium from food sources like whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and dark, leafy greens.

Quit Smoking

Several studies have found a link between smoking and menstrual pain. For example, a May 2022 Women's Health Reports study found a positive correlation between university students who smoked and their reports of affective issues, water retention problems, and increased menstrual-related pain—compared to university students who did not smoke.

While kicking the habit may not help you feel better instantly, it can help improve your health overall, Dr. Worly said. It can also make exercise, another period-pain remedy, a little easier.

If you still end up having concerns regarding period pain, be sure to talk with a healthcare provider to determine what other options may be available in order for you to get relief.

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