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Just hearing the word "cramps" is enough to make you cringe. As if the other pains and annoyances that often tag along with your period weren't enough, menstrual cramps had to be a thing. I'm fortunate enough to say my cramps, although terribly painful, aren't debilitating. The all-too familiar drill used to be hunkering down on the couch under four layers of blankets, with my hand draped over my forehead. Very Shakespearean. Or, if I had to attend dance classes or school, I'd pop a bunch of ibuprofen and call it a day.
That was it, but with a holistically-minded mother, I wouldn't be getting away with these "solutions" for long. She used to hand me books with underlined words about the oils that can help with pain. I'd read it and pass it back, mumbling about trying it sometime. At one point, in tears, my mom ignored my denial of essential oils' capabilities and mixed up a little concoction for me to rub on my skin. Mixed with a warm heat pack (not hot!) it was basically magic. Within 10 minutes, the pain had left the building. I almost didn't want to admit it, but somehow a little bit of oil knocked out what painkillers were doing a measly job of dealing with.
Which Essential Oils Help with Menstrual Cramps?
The magical potion is rather basic in terms of aromatherapy. It consists of three particular oils: lavender, clary sage, and geranium. You will no doubt smell like a health food store, but it's a small price to pay for natural pain management. Every body is different, and there really is no cure-all for every person, but I'm slowly becoming of the mindset there's no harm in trying whatever may be helpful. And this wasn't just sheer luck, it appears my mom was onto something.
Ohio-based OB/GYN Dr. Kim Langdon says essential oils like sage, cinnamon, lavender, marjoram, and rose can be beneficial when it comes to cramps. She also cited a study where lavender essential oil helped reduce pain in subjects dealing with dysmenorrhea.
Alison Angold, a massage therapist and aromatherapist with over 25 years experience echoes that same sentiment, adding bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, and geranium to the list. "These oils have at least three of the properties ideal for treating menstrual cramps; analgesic (pain-relieving), anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation), anti-spasmodic (calms and slows muscles spasms), and relaxing (has a general relaxing effect)," she says.
How Essential Oils Can Alleviate Pain
When it comes to the many seemingly miraculous uses of essential oils, I've always wondered how they actually work. How is it any different from just rubbing something like coconut or jojoba oil on my skin? Unsurprisingly, according to Angold, there's much more science behind it. "The molecules of the essential oils are so pure and fine they work by penetrating thorough the surface of the skin, sweat glands, and hair follicles, reaching the blood stream, and can then be transported to the target area to bring about a positive effect," she says. "If these oils are applied and gently massaged directly onto the abdomen area they can relieve and alleviate the pain of menstrual cramps more quickly. The analgesic effect, will reduce the pain, while the anti-spasmodic effect of the oils should bring about a reduction in the cramps."
And it really is this combination of massage and oils that helps, too. "In another study, aromatherapy abdominal massage was done once daily for seven days prior to menstruation using the essential oils (cinnamon, clove, rose, and lavender in a base of almond oil) and the control group used placebo oil (almond oil)," says Dr. Langdon. "This was a cross over trial—which means that the placebo group (after using the placebo oil) then used the combination essential oils. The results indicated that aromatherapy is effective in alleviating menstrual pain in degree of pain and its duration and excessive menstrual bleeding."
How to Use Essential Oils for Menstrual Cramps
There's a little more to it than slathering drops of oil on your abdomen. For starters, you'll need a carrier oil—Angold recommends sweet almond oil, avocado oil, or peach kernel oil. This is the substance that dilutes the essential oils and allows them to go on your skin without major irritation. But, it's always best to patch test first, and if you notice redness, itching, or stinging, remove the mixture immediately with a wet, warm wash cloth.
You can leave it at that and let the oils get to work. But, as mentioned, I personally like to add a warm heat pack to ease the pain further. Keep in mind: It's so important you don't make it too hot; oils and heat do not mix well with skin, so be extra careful or simply use the methods at different times.
Using essential oils isn't for everyone and if you're pregnant and experiencing cramps, speak with your doctor. Angold warns you should not use chamomile, clary sage, or geranium during pregnancy. It's also worth noting clary sage shouldn't be used with alcohol either, as it can heighten the effects—so that glass of vino can wait if your cramps are wreaking havoc. "If ever in any doubt of the use of essential oils, please consult a professional practitioner," she says.
If you're tired of the pain, mixing up a mini potion may serve you well.