Painful periods affect many women and for some they can be truly debilitating, with cramps so severe they can do nothing but curl up on the sofa in pain. For some people it is not unusual for 1-3 days a month to be a write-off, unable to work or function at all. Too often a visit to the doctor results in being told this is ‘normal’, and just given painkillers or even advised to go on the contraceptive pill to address the problem. The contraceptive pill can have many other side effects and many women have to choose between the monthly debilitating pain from their periods or the emotional and physical roller coaster they get from taking hormonal contraception.
But the simple fact is: Severe period pain is not a natural part of the menstruation process! It is not something that we should have to put up with and accept. According to traditional Chinese medicine painful periods are seen as a pathological symptom of an imbalance in the body and it is something that can be resolved.
Why do we get pain?
Primary dysmenorrhoea is period pain that occurs without an underlying medical condition. When our body is ready to shed the uterine lining (endometrium) at the end of each monthly cycle, the muscular wall of the uterus contracts to constrict the blood vessels and cut off the blood supply to the endometrium. This causes the tissue to die and the endometrium is shed. a small degree of discomfort is normal, but studies show that in some women there is hyper-contraction of the muscles causing severe pain
Secondary dysmenorrhoea is pain that occurs as a result of an underlying problem with the uterus or pelvis such as endometriosis, fibroids or pelvic inflammatory disease
How does acupuncture help?
Extreme pain during a period is a sign that the natural process of shedding the endometrium isn’t working at its best. Many women also experience other symptoms such as irregular cycles, heavy or long periods, digestive problems or feeling irritable or tearful. In fact all these problems are a sign that the menstrual system isn’t functioning correctly. By finding out why this is happening and addressing the problem at its cause, it is possible to be problem free.
An acupuncturist will take a full case history to determine the root cause of the dysfunction. The treatment would be then tailored to each individual according to what needs rebalancing. It may be that other methods are used in addition to acupuncture. Sometimes heat is used in the form of Moxa. Sometimes lifestyle or dietary changes are suggested.
An acupuncturist’s aim is to allow the blood to move more freely during the menstrual process. Often those with severe pain will have many clots in their menstrual blood. This is a sign of what acupuncturists call Blood Stagnation and it is that lack of easy flow that causes many problems. Acupuncture could help whether someone experiences pain from primary or secondary dysmenorrhoea.
Acupuncture may help reduce symptoms of dysmenorrhoea by:
- increasing relaxation and reducing tension (Samuels 2008). Acupuncture can alter the brain’s mood chemistry, reducing serotonin levels (Zhou 2008) and increasing endorphins (Han, 2004) and neuropeptide Y levels (Lee 2009), which can help to combat negative affective states
- reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Zijlstra 2003; Kavoussi 2007)
- stimulating nerves located in muscles and other tissues, which leads to release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors, and changes the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord (Pomeranz, 1987; Zijlstra 2003; Cheng 2009);
- increasing nitric oxide levels, which relaxes smooth muscle and hence may inhibit uterine contractions (Wang 2009)
- regulating neuroendocrine activities and the related receptor expression of the hypothalamus-pituitary-ovary axis (Liu 2009; Yang 2008)
for full information on the evidence and research behind this information, and information on how acupuncture can help other menstrual conditions, please see the British Acupuncture Council’s fact sheets for the following conditions:
If you have menstrual problems and would like to know more, please contact me for a chat.
Eleanor Breen Acupuncture, Bristol