Most women have experienced menstrual cramps, or “dysmenorrhea,” at one time or another. Menstrual cramps are dull, throbbing or cramping pains in the lower abdomen and are often experienced just before and during a period. For some women, it is merely an annoying discomfort but for others, it can be severe enough to interfere with everyday activities for a few days every month. Dysmenorrhea can be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, loose stools, sweating, and dizziness.
In many situations, there is no identifiable cause of dysmenorrhea. Many experts believe that constricted blood vessels during the period cause menstrual cramps, much in the way that angina occurs when blocked coronary arteries starve portions of the heart of food and oxygen. Most of the time painful menstruation is not considered a cause for concern and western medical treatment usually involves non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or hormonal birth control to manage the symptoms of dysmenorrhea.
In Chinese medicine, dysmenorrhea or painful periods are not considered a normal part of a woman’s life but rather a sign of an imbalance, which can be treated effectively in order to resolve the symptoms. As with western medical theory, Chinese medicine sees a lack of flow of blood and qi-energy as the cause for menstrual cramps. Whereas western medicine sees menstrual cramps as all belonging to the same class of problem, Chinese medicine breaks it down into six different types, depending on the internal imbalance causing the symptoms. Factors that can contribute to dysmenorrhea include emotional strain, prolonged exposure to cold and dampness, overwork or chronic illness, and childbirth.
A feeling of cold and pain in the lower abdomen that is aggravated by pressure and relieved by heat points toward an internal accumulation of cold and damp. Distention and pain in the lower abdomen that is aggravated by pressure and accompanied by pain in the rib flanks, chest, and breasts indicates an internal imbalance involving the liver energy. Lower abdominal pain that is aggravated by pressure and accompanied by a burning or distending pain in the lower back and sacrum indicates an internal damp heat accumulation. A feeling of cold and pain in the lower abdomen that is relieved by pressure or heat indicates internal cold and a deficiency of yang energy. A general lower abdominal pain that is somewhat relieved by pressure and is accompanied by fatigue, dizziness, and aching of the lower back and spine indicates a deficiency of liver and kidney energy. A general lower abdominal pain with a down-bearing sensation in the lower abdomen accompanied by fatigue and pale complexion indicates a deficiency of blood and qi-energy.
Acupuncture can be quite successful in the treatment of dysmenorrhea. Treatments can help to relieve symptoms very quickly, however it typically takes at least 3 cycles to get the body back into balance and fully resolve the problem. A real positive of acupuncture is that it is working to promote health while also managing and resolving the symptom. It’s very common to see other areas of health improve, such as energy levels, sleep, moods and stress levels, and pre-menstrual symptoms. Indeed, acupuncture is an excellent option for treating and resolving menstrual cramps.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.