Make Periods Less of a Literal Pain Using Targeted Treatments and Strategies for Every Ache

Photo: Getty Images/Moya Studio
In addition to feeling waves of depression and the resurgence of Mount Everest-size cystic acne on my chin, there's a surefire sign that tells me my period is a-comin': excruciating breast pain. About once a month, I swell up to a regular Dolly Parton, and my two gals become unbearably achy. Without fail, despite the historic pattern, I wonder, Am I pregnant? Am I dying? Yet, somehow, I'm always shocked when the answer to both those questions inevitably reveals itself as a "no." Neither pregnant nor dying, I meet the crimson demon yet again.

No matter how long I've had my period, and thus should be able to anticipate these recurring feelings, I end up googling the same concerns, like I'm stuck in a mensural-pain version of Groundhog Day: how to help period cramps, why do my breasts hurt, painful cystic acne, am I dying, rinse, repeat.

To this point, it's worth noting that my personal symptoms subside progressively as my cycle charges onward. But if your period-related pains don't ease up as the days pass, it could be a sign of an underlying issue to ask a health-care professional about. "This can be an indicator of issues such as endometriosis, fibroids, or pelvic pain syndromes," says sexual medicine holistic physician Serena McKenzie, ND and medical advisor at Rory. "That's why it's important to see your gynecologist when pain starts, so there's a discussion on how to manage the pain, and also to make sure there are no other underlying diseases." But, for tools to squelch your regularly scheduled crappy pain symptoms, we've got some expert insight.

How to help period cramps and backaches

While certain over-the-counter medications, like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve), can help soothe cramp pain, OB/GYN Stephanie McClellan, MD, notes naproxen can also help prevent the pain in the first place. But, being smart about dosage is crucial, she says, as is confirming with your health-care provider that taking these medications is safe for you and your body.

More holistically, a classic hot water bottle might be what you and your achy back have been missing your entire menstruating life. "Find one with a soft cover," Dr. McClellan suggests, so as to optimize cuddle-ability. "There are a lot of fancy heating pads out there, but a hot water bottle is inexpensive and retains heat for a long time."

Research also supports using acupuncture as an intervention to treat back pain. Or, you could try seeing a practitioner of moxibustion, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practice that may alleviate menstrual-pain symptoms by burning an aromatic plant over acupuncture points. "Moxibustion is a traditional technique performed by warming a condensed stick of moxa, an herb otherwise known as mugwort or artemisia vulgaris, over your lower abdomen or pelvis," says Elana Weisberg, acupuncturist for the New York City-based women's health-care and wellness center Tia. "The heat from the herb helps to relax smooth muscle, regulate blood circulation, and help to control any uterine contractions from arising post-procedure."

And if you'd rather just send your S.O. to the store for some quick, natural cramping and PMS remedies, add magnesium, fish oil, and vitamin E to the grocery list. Weisberg suggests washing those down with raspberry leaf tea to soothe uterine muscles.

Breast tenderness

At the first sign of breast pain, you want to slip into something a little more comfortable than the garish lingerie I personally tend to opt for. "Wear a comfortable, supportive bra that prevents 'bouncing,'" says Dr. McClellan. "A sports bra or soft cotton bra, and avoid underwires. You want it to be snug and secure but not too tight."

"Wear a comfortable, supportive bra that prevents 'bouncing. A sports bra or soft cotton bra, and avoid underwires. You want it to be snug and secure but not too tight." —Stephanie McClellan, OB/GYN

Furthermore, she says certain food choices can exacerbate discomfort. "Stick to whole, unprocessed foods. Hydrate and avoid sugar, alcohol, and sodium to reduce swelling."

Painful acne

My pre-Flo hormones generally leave me with a can't-miss lineup of cystic acne along my jawline and super-fun pimples decorating my mouth. Like any derm (and your mom, and the lady waxing my eyebrows one time) will tell you, the first rule for dealing with period-related skin flare-ups is to not touch it.

"A spot application with an acne gel or cream, prescription or over-the-counter, is helpful," says dermatologist Tara Rao, MD. "Another nice treatment is a cortisone injection (containing small amounts of highly diluted steroid solution) with your dermatologist."

And for a perfectly free treatment, there's always frozen water. Wrapping an ice cube in a paper towel and applying it in intervals of 10 minutes on, then 10 minutes off, is great for cystic acne; it can numb the pain and decrease inflammation at once.

Low energy

"Low energy during your period is typically a sign of blood deficiency in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and could even mean anemia from a Western medicine perspective," says women's health expert Aimee Raupp, MS, LAc. "So I typically recommend blood-building foods like leafy green vegetables, beets, bone broth, and red meat." Also, give yourself the opportunity to take a beat and relax. "Rest and keep exercise to a low-to-moderate intensity. In fact, in TCM, we recommend no exercise on the heavy days of your menstrual flow," she adds.

Well, if you were looking for an excuse to skip the gym (despite other accounts contending that working out during your period can actually make you feel better)… Basically, do right by your body by intuitively leaning into what feels right to you.

Bad mood

Sometimes I find that my bad mood is the toughest period-related symptom to troubleshoot. While I do believe that embracing the grump every now and then isn't the worst way to go about life (especially during that time of the month), there are a few methods worth trying.

"Keep your blood sugar balanced," says Raupp. "During your period, it’s really easy to have spikes and drops in blood sugar, which often results in crankiness. Be sure to eat a breakfast filled with protein and veggies, like eggs and spinach, eat enough protein throughout your day, and avoid long gaps in meals." I suppose it does make sense that hangriness and a sour mood could be connected.

And now that I'm armed with tips for treating (and pre-treating) every stone my period stands to throw, I'm ready for next month's battle. Get at me, Flo.

Now that you're clearer on how to help period cramps and other symptoms, check out the 411 on other Shark Week woes. Like, is it safe to swim on your period? And 6 of the most common period questions, answered by OB/GYNs.

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