Painful periods can make you feel helpless, lonely and misunderstood. Finding effective relief is never easy and ultimately it is very subjective. Osteopaths can offer you comfort and help you find what works for you.
You probably understand the relentless tightening, the struggle to find a position that eases the sharpness, the hugging of hot water bottles to soothe the cramping, the inability to concentrate on anything other than the pain.
The medical term to describe painful periods is 'dysmenorrhea'. Recent studies have shown that almost three-quarters of the people who menstruatehave had painful periods, making it a leading cause for lost days of school and work. Sadly, belly pain is not the only symptom as sufferers also report to experience nausea, mood swings and often feeling a lack of empathy from societal institutions and those people that are close.
The good news is that science progresses, and with it does culture, putting us in a better place to understand how to manage period pain and allowing us to engage in more open conversations about menstrual health; so here is what you need to know.
What is primary dysmenorrhea?
You can either have primary or secondary dysmenorrhea. The former tends to start in the early years of menstruation and is due to the action of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins which promote contraction of the uterus to help shed the lining. The excess production of prostaglandin results in stronger contractions, constriction of uterine blood vessels and greater pain sensitivity. The latter, secondary dysmenorrhea, tends to be the manifestation of other underlying issues like endometriosis, fibroids, adenomyosis or infection and requires medical treatment.
Pain is individual
Research has shown that the experience of period pain is highly variable, with just half of New Zealanders, 84% of Italian or as many as 90% of Iranian women suffering from some sort of period discomfort. Of these, some may experience constant pain, others short-and-sharp spells; some may feel needy for affection, others want to be left alone; yet some may be feeling like running marathons and so on. We all work differently and the journey to undertake is towards self-understanding, rather than comparing ourselves to others’ expectations. If your body is telling you to slow down and nurture yourself, that should be the key.
Keeping generally active and fit is important for everyone and should be incorporated into your lifestyle. However, research on how it helps menstrual pain has been conflicting. The most important thing is to listen to your body. If you are in extreme pain a gentle walk or some gentle stretches may feel more nurturing than going for a run.
Osteopaths will attentively listen to your unique experience of menstrual pain and accordingly work with your body, letting it find its way to a better condition by improving self-regulatory capacities. There is evidenceto show that applying massage and neuromuscular techniques on the muscles of your back as well as promoting joints range of movement can promote general relaxation and reduce the pain intensity. Moreover, osteopaths are trained to gently manipulate the abdomen to promote blood supply and release some of the tension held in the area. The hormonal, muscular and psychological benefits of an osteopathic encounter are many and, as for most things, it’s best understood at first-hand experience.
Whilst gentle exercise may help during your period, for some, movement can aggravate the pain and increase the sense of nausea. You may be an active and energetic person but at this time of the month, the body is asking for the opposite. Give yourself permission to rest. We’re not meant to be at full pace all the time! Use this time to be quiet, sleep and nurture yourself with a hot water bottle. Also, where possible manage your diary so that it is less busy around the time of menstruation.
Stress activates in your body all of those systems responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. And though this may be temporarily very important, prolonged stress can have seriously bad effects on our health. Importantly, studies have shown that stress can influence dysmenorrhoea, escalating and prolonging the pain; thus, finding ways of managing it is vital.
Stress management can be approached in a multitude of ways, one helpful approach is mindfulness. Mindfulnessis a practice that focuses on bringing one’s attention back to the experiences of the present moment. The aim is to be able to observe our thoughts, bodily sensations and emotions without being carried away by judgements, simply with a clear, open and loving eye. It uses a range of techniques to facilitate this process including slow breathing exercises, body-scanning and meditation. Mindfulness has been shownto be a great tool to reduce pain from all causes and the same is valid for dysmenorrhea.
Openly talking about period pain may bring feelings of embarrassment and shame, but this should not be the case. Periods should not be viewed as a burden to our daily lives instead accepted as a natural monthly recurrence in a woman’s life. As such, our partners, institutions and workplaces need to be educated about it and this education starts from you.
We all know the benefits of a healthy diet and it has been shown that diet can play a role in menstrual pain. Sugar, including refined carbohydrates and alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils can all increase inflammation and influence hormone regulation, making symptoms like pain, cramping and bloating worse. You don’t have to cut out these things entirely, but moderation is key, and women generally find limiting these foods in the week leading up to menstruation can help manage symptoms.
It is important to remember that every woman’s experience of her monthly cycle is unique. Some women may never experience pain while others may find it impairs their ability to go about their usual daily routine. Despite what society might have led you to believe periods, especially extremely painful ones, should be addressed. It is always best to have your GP investigate and rule out any underlying issues and to get advice on how you may manage your pain.