SOS for Menstrual Cramps
best relief for period pain? Get off the couch and on the move.
WebMD the Magazine - Feature
W. Smith, MD
Pam Kelly (not her last name) was only in the third grade
when she got her first period. From the beginning, her menstrual cycle was a
source of monthly dread. "I was out of school a couple of days just about
every month, the pain was so bad," says Kelly [real name withheld at her
request], now a 46-year-old office worker living in Arlington, Va., and mother
of twin 8-year-old daughters. "The school nurse would give me codeine for
the pain, and I was finally put on high-dose birth control pills. Those helped
some." (Since birth control pills maintain more consistent hormone levels,
they can help alleviate period pain.)
But then, as she entered junior high, Kelly found
something that worked even better: exercise. "I joined the basketball team and
then the soccer team, and I found that the pain was becoming less and less,"
she says. "By ninth grade, I didn't even need the birth control pills
Dysmenorrhea -- which means menstrual pain -- affects many
women. Some studies estimate as many as 90% of younger women have severe period
pain, and it's the leading cause of school and work absences for this group.
Exercise relieves cramps because it helps release
beta-endorphins, which are internal opioids -- your own "human morphine,"
according to Kelly's doctor, Gustavo Rossi, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist
at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. "It produces analgesia [pain relief]
and helps to burn the prostaglandins -- chemicals released during menstruation
that cause muscle contractions -- much faster."
The best form of exercise for relieving menstrual pain,
experts agree, is aerobic exercise -- something that gets your heart rate up,
such as brisk walking, biking, swimming, or, in these cooler months,
ice-skating. "The important thing is that you do it at least three times a
week, for 30 minutes at a time," says Paula Castano, MD, an assistant clinical
professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University College of
Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
Kelly recently noticed her severe menstrual pain is back,
after dropping her exercise routine last November because of family
illness. While Rossi wants to rule out other problems, both he and Kelly agree
that her new sedentary ways have to go.
"My neighborhood is very hilly, and I love to go on long
walks with my dog, so that's my plan for making time for it again," Kelly
for Cramp Relief
Break a sweat by walking at a brisk pace. You should be able to talk to someone
accompanying you, but not without a little effort. Need to push yourself? Try
doing what Kelly does: Hit the hills, or bring an energetic pooch -- or both.
Real relief from period pain seems to come from vigorous exercise, the kind that
gets you breathing hard and your heart pumping fast. When that happens, your
body releases endorphins that help counteract the cramp-producing chemicals that
are part of the menstrual cycle.
Prostaglandins, which are hormone-like chemicals made in
our bodies from fatty acids, are one of the causes for menstrual cramps-they
cause uterine muscles to contract. Therefore, women who have higher levels of
prostaglandins may have more contractions which usually means more pains. As a
matter of fact, artificial prostaglandins are used to induce labor. How's that
Exercise that gets your heart pumping may help relieve
cramps. The best relief comes from strenuous exercises such as aerobics, brisk
walking,walking,etc. When you do these types of exercises endorphins are
released and they help counteract prostaglandins. Plus exercise helps to relieve
stress and tension in muscles. I have also found that strengthening my
abdominals have lessened my menstrual pain.
Eating a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
will help ease pain. High fat diets ususally contain a lot of saturated trans-
fats (butter,animal fats) which may metabolize into pro-inflammatory
prostaglandins while good fats( oil oil,flaxseed oil, omega-3) metabolize into
anti-inflammatory prostaglandins which may result in less pain.