Did you know that over 80% of women experience painful periods? And for some women, the amount of pressure in the uterus from those cramps can be just as severe as labor pains?
As someone who has been in labor recently, I can tell you that it is no cakewalk. The truth is that menstrual pain (Dysmenorrhea) is a significant problem for many women. In fact, this study found that in a group of 269 female college students, 84% experienced pain in the abdomen and back, 84% experienced mood swings and 48% experienced dizziness. Another interesting stat from this study: 48% felt like their academic performance was impacted. (and I would bet women out of school probably feel like their work and home life are impacted too!)
With menstrual pain impacting women as much as it does, it is surprising how few effective pain-reducing options we have. Most women turn to pain relievers like tylenol and ibuprofen, but the effectiveness of those in actually reducing the pain isn’t really that great. The great news is that there are many ways in which physical therapy can actually help with menstrual pain, and several studies have shown that many physiotherapy interventions are just as (if not more!) effective as pain medications.
So, what can physical therapy do to help with those painful cramps?
Movement is what we do in physical therapy, and certain exercises which help with movement of the spine and abdomen can be very helpful in improving pain levels. This study, in particular, found that certain yoga postures–Cat, Cobra and Fish– helped with reducing pain. Another study found that a physical therapy program including aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching and relaxation led to a reduction in pain during menses.
So, modalities sometimes get a bad rap in the physical therapy world. And I get it, they are passive (meaning you, as the patient, don’t really have to do anything), and they are frequently over-used in cases when an active approach can be more helpful. But, certain modalities have been shown to be very helpful in reducing menstrual pain. In particular, applied hot packs were found to be equally beneficial to pain medication in this study! Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) applied to the low back/sacrum and/or abdomen has also been shown to have excellent results. The great thing about both of these options is that they are easy, reusable and effective options for a woman to use monthly without having to ingest medication.
Manual Therapy Interventions
The research regarding manual interventions for painful periods is honestly not fantastic, however, there have been some studies that have shown that treatments such as connective tissue mobilization, massage and acupressure have been helpful in reducing menstrual pain. When I used to work at a large clinic, many of my female co-workers would seek connective tissue mobilization and other soft tissue mobilizations from colleagues when having painful cramps. Clinically, I have seen that working with someone to reduce muscle sensitivity and tenderness (both in the pelvic floor muscles as well as muscles around the pelvis) does seem to reduce cramping during menses. I’m not positive the exact mechanism for this, but my working theory is that improving the “threat level” from muscles and tissues around the pelvis has effects that transfer to other situations (like cramping during periods), so the “threat level” during this situation is also reduced. I also think that hormones play a role in this as the tissues at the vulva/urethra are sensitive to estrogen, but also impacted by muscles and blood flow. So, hormonal changes that occur within a normal cycle (that lead to cramping, etc) could then be impacted by a decreased blood flow and decreased tissue mobility, thus causing the discomfort from cramping to be worsened. There you go, that’s my working theory.
So, in summary, if you’re having pretty bad cramping during your periods, know that there are some options to help! Often times, women are the WORST at just dealing with problems they have (and things like painful cramps are often blown off by friends, family members and other healthcare providers!) If this sounds like you, it may be worth seeing a pelvic PT for a consultation to help you build a robust and effective toolbox for managing your pain!
What other options have you found helpful in reducing cramping pain during periods? I always love to hear from you! Have a great week!
**Note: If your menstrual cramps are severe and truly limiting your life, make sure that your healthcare provider knows about it! There are some medical conditions which can contribute to severe cramping, and there are treatments available.