I specialize in women’s health issues in my Chinese medicine clinical practice.
When asking about a woman’s menstrual cycle, it’s rare to meet a woman who doesn’t experience cramps during her menstrual period.
The medical term for period cramps is Dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea is the term used for the throbbing or dull pain in the lower abdomen and/or lower back that can happen right before the period, during the period, and to a much lesser extent even after the period.
The pain can range from being just slightly noticeable to being debilitating where the woman can’t go to work and can’t function for several days. I always ask about the severity of the cramps…do they miss work? Do they have to take pain medications like advil? What makes the pain better?
As many as half of women who get their period have cramps and of these, about 10% have severe dysmenorrhea, which greatly limits activities for one to three days each month.
The pain isn’t just in the lower abdomen. It can occur in the lower back and may even extend down to the legs. In severe cases, there may be nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache or even fainting.
Some women describe cramps as being sharp throbbing pains that come and go while others describe them to be dull and constant.
You may believe that having cramps is just simply part of the many unfortunate things that women go through; however, according to Chinese medicine, it reveals that there is an imbalance occurring in the body which can be resolved. Yes, I said it can be resolved!
Let’s get deeper into why period cramps happen
The pains are caused by contractions in the musculature of the uterus.
These contractions are caused by the release of the body’s prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormones produced by the lining of the uterus as the lining prepares to be shed. Prostaglandins help the uterus to contract and relax so that the lining can detach and then flow out of the body as the period.
Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more severe menstrual cramps.
Menstrual cramps that aren’t involved with any underlying condition tend to lessen with age and after giving birth.
There are two kinds of dysmenorrhea – Primary and Secondary.
Primary dysmenorrhea starts from puberty and it isn’t associated with a particular condition. This is simply due to contractions of the uterus.
Since there isn’t an actual disorder causing primary dysmenorrhea, then the treatment is simply pain relief. Or if a hormonal imbalance is found because there is also irregular menstrual cycles involved, then the oral contraceptive pill (birth control pill) is given.
Studies show that primary dysmenorrhea is associated with uterine hyper contractibility: during contractions endometrial blood flow is reduced, and there is a correlation between minimal blood flow and maximal colicky pain – thus confirming that ischemia (lack of blood supply) due to hyper contractibility causes primary dysmenorrhea. This ties in with the Chinese medicine perspective that Qi and blood flow is stagnated in most cases of women suffering with dysmenorrhea.
Secondary dysmenorrhea starts later in life and it might be due to conditions like endometriosis, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) or fibroids.
When these conditions are addressed and treated, the period cramps hopefully will resolve.
For a normal period to occur, blood must be abundant and move adequately.
Proper movement of blood relies on the free flow of liver Qi (energy). Why the liver? The liver is in charge of the smooth flow of Qi throughout the whole body.
If liver Qi (energy) is stagnant/blocked, it causes pain especially before the period. If liver-blood is stagnant/blocked, it causes pain during the period.
Stagnation is the most important thing to treat when dealing with painful menstruation.
In acupuncture, there are 14 meridian systems in the body. These meridians are pathways of communication and each meridian corresponds with a particular organ.
In painful menstruation, the liver meridian is the primary meridian that I focus on. The liver in Chinese medicine stores the blood and is considered the “woman’s organ”. As said above, the liver also promotes the smooth flow of Qi and blood throughout the body. When the liver isn’t working properly, or is “stagnant” or “congested”, the Qi and blood will not flow through the body properly and pain will result. The liver meridian also runs to the pelvic region.
The other organs which can be involved in painful menstruation are the spleen and kidneys.
Chinese medicine always treats the underlying pattern when treating patients with menstrual cramps as there are always different causes. For example, in my clinic, I may see two women with menstrual cramps but their treatment protocols (acupuncture points and herbal formulas) may be completely different from each other. This is because I’m treating the pattern and not the symptom. This is one of the reasons why Chinese medicine is so effective. The treatments are customized to the individual.
I do a thorough consultation with the patient and then I conclude as to the specific Chinese medicine pattern. Very often, the patient will not only exhibit one pattern but rather many patterns complicated into each other.
Here are some of the common patterns I see in my clinical practice:
Cold in the Uterus
Damp-Heat in Lower Abdomen
Qi and Blood Deficiency
Liver and Kidney Deficiency
Treatments you will receive in my clinic will consist of acupuncture and/or herbal medicine. Nutrition and lifestyle changes will be addressed as well.
You should expect significant improvements in your menstrual cramps within three months of treatment with Chinese medicine (and even sooner for some women).
Here are some lifestyle and dietary tips I give to my patients who struggle with menstrual cramps:
If you are experiencing severe menstrual cramps that you have never experienced before, please consult with your doctor. Also consult your doctor if your menstrual cramps have become severe and debilitating.