For many women, menstrual cramps are a painful monthly reality. According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, between 40 and 90 percent of women face a monthly struggle with the disabling effects of menstrual cramps. The cause of menstrual cramps -- otherwise known as dysmenorrhea -- is unclear, and doctors do not know why pain levels vary among women or from one cycle to the next. Although ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a common treatment, more women are looking for non-drug solutions. Natural treatments to ease the pain of menstrual cramps while minimizing side effects include herbal preparations, dietary supplements, traditional Chinese medicine, heat therapy and exercise.
A natural alternative for alleviating cramp pain can be found in plant or herbal preparations with pain-relieving and antiinflammatory effects. Herbs commonly used for menstrual cramps include cramp bark, raspberry leaf, angelica, chaste berry and black cohosh. Herbal tinctures or capsules can be found at most health food stores or specialty sections at grocery stories. Cramp bark is a top choice among herbalists. The plant contains valerianic acid, a relaxant specific to the reproductive system. No clinical trials have been conducted on cramp bark, but it has no known side effects or drug interactions. Cramp bark is a diuretic, meaning it increases the amount of urine excreted. You should check with a doctor before trying one of these preparations to ensure safety and avoid potential herb-drug interactions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture and Chinese herbs, offers a long history of methods to address menstrual pain. These treatments work, their advocates say, by unblocking "qi," or vital energy, along the body’s energy channels. Acupuncture may be useful for treatment of dysmenorrhea, but research is preliminary and limited in scope. In small studies, women with menstrual cramps who received regular acupuncture treatments noted at least some improvement in symptoms. The improvements lasted at least 6 months and enabled women to reduce their ibuprofen use. Although a few small studies of Chinese herbs for menstrual pain have shown promising results with no adverse events, more well-designed studies are needed. A qualified Chinese herbalist or licensed acupuncturist can develop a customized herbal formula or acupuncture treatment that targets your symptoms.
A large randomized controlled trial showed 100 mg of vitamin B1 daily to be an effective treatment for dysmenorrhea, according to a "Cochrane Summaries" review published in 2001. Magnesium also may ease cramping when taken throughout menstruation. And in a small study, vitamin E was as effective as ibuprofen for relief of menstrual cramps. Omega-3 oils, such as fish or flax oil, are another natural ally for battling menstrual pain. Some studies have shown fish oil to be effective in reducing menstrual pain, especially when combined with vitamin B12. Make sure to buy a mercury-free brand of fish oil, and check with your doctor if you are already taking a blood thinner such as warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) or daily aspirin, as fish oil has anticoagulant properties.
Heat and Exercise
One of the easiest and most effective treatments for menstrual cramps can be found without leaving home: heat therapy. In a well-designed study, continuous low-level heat therapy from a heating pad, heating pack or hot water bottle was shown to be more effective paired with ibuprofen than ibuprofen alone. Exercise also may help to keep menstrual cramps at bay. Although little research exists on the use of movement for dysmenorrhea, in one small trial, exercise decreased menstrual cramps, and the benefit lasted for 3 menstrual cycles. A small study also found that yoga reduced the severity and duration of cramps. If symptoms persist outside of menstruation, inform your doctor, as you could have an underlying medical condition. It is important to seek medical care for severe symptoms unrelieved by these and other remedies if they are interfering with your daily activities. Inform your health-care provider about all forms of treatment you are using, including herbs and supplements.