No matter whether they're debilitating or just annoying, cramps can wreak havoc on your lifestyle and sense of wellbeing. Technically speaking, period cramps are mechanical spasms of the uterine muscle triggered by the release of prostaglandins to help facilitate menstrual flow. In addition to period cramps, female bodies can experience mid-cycle discomfort and cramping during ovulation called mittelschmerz. "This occurs in the middle of a menstrual cycle when an ovary releases an egg, and this type of pain usually only lasts for a few minutes to a few hours," explains Laurence Orbuch, MD, FACOG. He adds, "Menstrual cramps can persist for hours or days during a period."
Every female who gets their period experiences cramps differently, based on individual anatomy. "Depending on the position of the uterus—anterior, posterior, or mid-position—in your pelvis, can determine where you may experience the most painful menstrual cramping," says Sherry A. Ross MD, FACOG. "Lower back and abdominal pain are the most common places women experience the discomfort." The severity of cramping can vary not only from person-to-person but also from month-to-month. Thankfully, there are many remedies—from herbs to yoga poses and the tried-and-true hot water bottle method—that can help you feel better when cramps strike.
Ahead, three OBGYNs and a naturopath offer viable solutions on how to get rid of cramps caused by your period.
Meet the Expert
- Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG is a practicing gynecologist and has expertise in female sexual and reproductive health and medical sex therapy. She is INTIMINA’s Sexual and Reproductive Health expert.
- Laurence Orbuch, MD, FACOG is a board-certified OB/GYN physician and director GYN Laparoscopic/Robotic Associates LA in Beverly Hills. He specializes in endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and pelvic pain.
- Sherry A. Ross, MD, FACOG has expertise in female sexual and reproductive health and is the author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period.
- Kate Denniston, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor, trained in both conventional and alternative medicine. She specializes in helping women optimize their hormonal health and practices at Los Angeles Integrative Health.
Track Your Period
A simple step in managing period pain is knowing when to expect it. "Keeping an app or anticipatory calendar so symptoms can be addressed before they occur is super helpful," says Dweck.
Try OTC Anti-inflammatory Medications
Reach for an over-the-counter pain reliever for quick relief from period pain. "Anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDs are helpful in countering the effects of the prostaglandins released," says Orbuch.
Although NSAIDs are one of the most common period cramp remedies, they're by no means the only answer to effective pain relief. Orbuch says many people find herbal preparations for cramps highly beneficial.
Try Natural Supplements and Herbs
Denniston says that natural supplements and herbs can be just as effective at blocking period pain as NSAIDs and have fewer side effects. "In a similar mechanism to ibuprofen, turmeric blocks the production of inflammatory molecules and thins menstrual flow," she says. "Turmeric reduces inflammatory molecules and pain by blocking the COX-2 enzyme specifically, which means it has fewer side effects than NSAIDS which block both the COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes."
In addition to turmeric, Denniston suggests the use of zinc to "decrease prostaglandin production and cramping. Numerous studies...have demonstrated that zinc significantly improves the severity and duration of period cramping compared to placebo." A 2016 study found that a zinc supplement was nearly twice as effective at reducing period cramps as the control.
She also advocates for adding magnesium to your diet, as it's an "important nutrient for preventing and decreasing menstrual cramps. Make sure it's magnesium glycinate, which is the most absorbable form, and not magnesium citrate or oxide, which don't have as beneficial effects on the uterus." She adds that magnesium can "relax smooth muscle and decrease contractility."
Additionally, the B vitamins B1 and B6 have "beneficial effects on hormone regulation and cramping," according to Denniston.
Try Applying Heat
All of our experts like the idea of applying heat to help relieve cramps. "Your grandma’s hot water bottle, when applied to the lower abdominal area, helps relax tense muscles associated with cramping," says Ross. Electric heating pads are also a standard savior.
Move Your Body with Exercise (and This Yoga Pose)
Another expert favorite remedy is exercise, or simply moving your body to help relieve period pain. "Exercise helps relieve cramps in a number of ways," says Ross. "It helps by bringing on the feel-good endorphin hormones, builds our tolerance to pain and discomfort, and reduces stress."
"It’s common to think that there’s increased blood flow in the pelvis during menses, research actually indicates blood flow in the uterus is actually decreased due to uterine blood vessel constriction," says Dennison. She favors the yoga pose Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani) to increase blood flow to the pelvis and uterus.
Avoid Sugar, Salt, and Alcohol
Sugar, salt, and alcohol contribute to bloating, which can worsen discomfort from cramps, says Dweck. It's best to avoid these foods in heavy consumption. Instead, focus on hydrating yourself with water-based foods. Ross suggests eating berries, celery, cucumber, lettuce, and watermelon. "Adding ginger to hot water is another useful remedy," she says.
Keep Your Gut Microbiome Balanced
We're only beginning to understand the gut microbiome's role in overall health and wellness, but a healthy gut might improve how your body manages the pain of period cramps: "Probiotic supplements can also ease period cramps, bloating, and constipation," says Ross. "Other helpful foods include dark chocolate, flaxseed, cinnamon, fiber, and parsley."
Staying regular has added benefits besides increased comfort. Denniston says that a fiber-rich diet can "eliminate excess hormones and feed beneficial bacteria in the gut that reduce inflammation." She suggests a diet of colorful produce for natural sources of antioxidant-rich fiber.
Consider Hormonal Management
Hormonal contraceptive options can also address cramps. "Hormonal management with the pill, for example, can be helpful to manage irregular or heavy cycles," says Dweck. She adds, "The hormonal IUD is helpful for heavy flow."
Ross adds that "hormonal birth control shortens the length, amount and flow of period bleeding. The end result is fewer cramps each month."
Use CBD to Relieve Inflammation
One of the more popular period pain remedies includes the use of CBD to try to help relax muscles and induce pleasure, which might distract the body from experiencing pain. "There are many ways to use CBD products, including bath salts, tampons, suppositories, infused chocolates, body balms, and tinctures," says Ross. "They all seem to be effective for mild and moderate cramps."
Denniston says CBD may "alleviate menstrual cramps by acting on the endocannabinoid system, which affects inflammation, mood, and pain."
Consult a Doctor
It's important to know when you should consult a physician for pain associated with menstrual cramps. Our experts agree that recurrent and constant severe pain is cause for a check-in. Additionally, be on the lookout for coexisting symptoms. These include, according to Orbuch, "Menorrhagia (very heavy flow during the period), Dysmenorrhea (severe pain during the period), and Metrorrhagia (bleeding episodes in between periods)."
He also says to pay attention to coexisting symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, nausea, bloating, back pain, and urinary irregularities. "There are many conditions which could be the cause or contributor to the symptoms. These include, but are not limited to uterine fibroids, endometrial polyps, endometriosis, adenomyosis, gastrointestinal conditions, urinary tract, and bladder conditions."
Ross adds that "a constant, low-grade pain that is bearable" could signal a ruptured cyst, bladder infection, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, or endometriosis." Endometriosis, she says, "doesn’t always respond to traditional treatment remedies" regarding pain management.
When you do consult a physician, be sure to address the possibility of hormonal imbalances. "It’s important to test for underlying hormonal imbalances and nutrient deficiencies that are at the root of menstrual cramping," says Denniston. "I often use the DUTCH test to evaluate estrogen metabolism, total estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and certain nutrient levels that can impact cramping."
Cleveland Clinic. Dysmenorrhea. Updated November 20, 2020.
Teimoori B, Ghasemi M, Hoseini ZS, Razavi M. The efficacy of zinc administration in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea. Oman Med J. 2016;31(2):107-111. doi:10.5001/omj.2016.21