Beating the Pain of the Crimson Wave

For some, menses is a vague annoyance tethered to the wonder of fertility. For others, it’s a debilitating shitshow accompanied by cramps so blindingly painful that you pass out in line at the DMV, hit your head on the cement-backed linoleum and come to be surrounded by EMTs.

Unfortunately, I live squarely in that second scenario. Fortunately, I have some tips.

1. Magnesium. Holy game-changer. For me, taking magnesium daily more or less eradicated menstrual cramps. I like Natural Calm because it gets me to drink more water, but if you can get your 300-400mgs/day through foods like nuts, dark leafy greens, fish, and grains, even better. Just know it takes a few weeks to kick in before changing your life forever.

2. Skullcap. Either in tea or tincture form, as an antispasmodic skullcap lessens the intensity of cramps, and as a nervine it’s calming, although high doses can make some a bit loopy. The herb doesn’t quite silence cramps like NSAIDs, but it’s a close second.

3. AleveOr any NSAID (non-steroid anti-inflamatory drug). Try taking Aleve the day before your period starts to avoid the onset of cramps. Not a break-through suggestion, but because NSAIDs build up in your system you can skirt the initial discomfort with a little forethought. A word of caution, though, NSAID overuse can lead to gastrointestinal issues.

4. Stretching and exercise. Though less appealing than the fetal position, movement increases blood flow to combat cramping. Light yoga can relax muscles, while amped up activity is a great distraction. It only takes a few minutes of running to forget I’m supposed to be wallowing next to a heating pad.

So, those are the top performers in my arsenal. In the spirit of balanced reporting, however, I must include Charlotte’s well-researched favs:

Apply a small animal. From WikiHow “…it may help to put a cat or other small animal on top of wherever you have cramps. Make sure the animal is calm. The vibrations of a purring cat help to relax your muscles, while the gentle heat gets rid of cramps.” I have to wonder what other small animals are resting on people’s uteri thanks to WikiHow, but whatever works.

Orgasm. According to the internet, le petit mort can release muscle tension thereby easing cramps. By all means, take things into your own hands if your partner’s not up to the task. Even if your cramps don’t improve (mine seemed to temporarily get worse before getting better), your mood likely will.

Your turn! Tell me tell me tell me: what are your go-to remedies for cramps and PMS? Anyone try cramp bark tincture??

– By Kate Barnett, who sincerely and sternly reminds you to see a doctor before starting any course of treatment, and also suggests you schedule that yearly check-up now that you have health insurance again.   

  • Thanks for this piece, Kate! I have to say that I am in the same boat as you…days of debilitating pain (the stomach, the back, everywhere), nausea, and annoying fluid.

    I definitely will get behind you in running. It totally helps to warm and loosen those cramping muscles, and that goes for any fatigue, anywhere felt during these days. I know it’s really not beneficial health-wise, but I really love when my period stops for longer periods of time during seasons of more intense training. Anything to receive a little less pain always sounds nice.

    • Hanne

      to have your period stop, you can actually just take the pill and not have the week-long period break, but continue with the next pack staight away. it seems weird and maybe unhealthy, but it’s not, just talk to your obgyn. i have a friend who hasn’t had to deal with menses in close to a decade, i was always sceptical but when i talked to my doctor last year about it, she encouraged me to skip the period break, and it is so amazıng, not having to worry about my period and the pain and whatever connected to it. and if you like a period break from intense excercise, maybe you would like it that way as well, and it’s controllable.

      • Kate Barnett

        there’s also one designed so you just have four periods a year, although i’m not sure if that’s a difference in marketing, or actual pill chemistry. i was put on that one to combat cramps but found that it lead to yeast infections. soooo, no more hormones for me.

  • Raquel Podojil

    Hot tea and whiskey – 1 cup takes the pain right away.

  • Bridget

    You fainted at the DMV — I fainted at Ikea, waking on a display bed with a crowd of people hovering above me, while my boyfriend tried to shepherd them away — though it was like herding cats. Awful experience, typical pain.

    • Kate Barnett

      ahhhh! i’m so pleased to know i’m not the only one, but that sounds equally as horrible.

    • I ended up on my knees in the middle of an aisle at Toys R Us recently while shopping for a present. I scared a few kids. Not cool. Good to know there are others, but at the same time, sorry you feel it too!

    • Erica Rae Deutsch

      lol “herding cats”, i love that phrase

  • Q

    Strong spicy ginger tea, brewed either from the root or powder. Add aromatic bay leaf and/or cinnamon for extra deliciousness.

    • Kate Barnett

      that sounds so good. i make ginger tea with the root, hot water, lemon and honey often, but haven’t tried adding cinnamon or a bay leaf. will definitely be doing that tonight!

  • I prefer other herbal home remedies. Works for me!

    • Kate Barnett

      like what??? i’m really curious about cramp bark, but haven’t tried it yet.

      • bumblejeaniepie

        I think she means marijuana.

        • Anne


        • Kate Barnett

          hahaha fair enough

  • bumblejeaniepie

    Taking Evening Primrose Oil supplements regularly has really helped balance my hormones so I don’t turn into a paranoid, overreactive psychopath 10 days before my period, I don’t break out like a teenager a week before, and my cramps aren’t half as bad as they used to be. Also, bubble baths.

  • rhiarhia

    Electric heating pads creep me out, and I don’t have a cat, so I go for hot bags that you can microwave. My favorite one is filled with rice and has some lavender which is relaxing and smells nice.

  • Britt

    I used to throw up from pain on the first day of my period every single darn month. Exercise did nothing, but eating a really healthy diet has worked miracles. I stop eating sweets about a week before my period and voila! I’m definitely gonna try the magnesium though.

    • raissaemail

      I have noticed this being relevant. Also apparently the chocolate cravings are a sing that the body needs magnesium.

  • Mine isn’t too bad, thanks to being on the Pill. However, when the cramps do get a bit annoying, I like to do some deep breathing exercises, grab a glass of wine, and read some fashion magazines.

    For the days when I can’t do that, some tea and ibuprofen seems to do the trick. The tea warms me up and keeps me awake (my PMS spirit animal is a sloth), and the ibuprofen staves off most of the dull ache.

    Speaking of, I need to go finish my tea and head back to work!

  • I knew about exercise relieving pain, less about the rest…

  • Angela Nicole Winfield

    SEX OR HEATING PAD. I like sex and if I can’t find anyone to sleep with me, I use the heating pad. Ommmm.

  • Lulu

    I haven’t found anything that works for me yet, only fairly heavy painkillers and even then…My hormones appear to be unstoppable.

    • raissaemail

      I found out that when I’m on my period, all painkillers make it worse. Something about the fact that everything is hurting and I give the stomach/intestines more work on..that was the first time I passed out. My first painkiller.

  • Erica Rae Deutsch

    i’ll have to try the magnesium. i’ve heard it also helps with pms cravings of chocolate and such?

  • Penny Lane

    Ginger tea!

  • Dying laughing because my dog is ALWAYS my heating pad.

  • raissaemail

    oh dear we should be recognized and rewarded for what we go through.
    I’m also a passer-outer: Toilet, bus, train. And not once fail at making everyone think I’m some kind of addict.
    I’m a no-hormones convert too, the pill caused infections, moodswings, no libido, and that’s just sad. Masturbation can help, mostly does. The light makes my period pains worse, so I curl up somewhere dark and wear a sleeping mask. Magnesium is good, ginger tea and bay leaf infusion can help, sit on the shower floor and let hot water run over you also is my last hope (before passing out). I HATE to say it but being active daily really helps. On months where I’m running around (literally) busy, my periods hurt way less.

    • Kate Barnett

      you know, in the past few years i’ve finally accepted that i can’t keep looking for or relying on ‘quick fixes’, as there’s usually an underlying issue that deserves to be addressed. which is a bummer because i’m very much an immediate gratification-type person. but understanding that concept doesn’t make it any easier to follow such-and-such routine, be more active, etc. as i get older though, sticking to those routines feels less burdensome. probably because i know how i feel when i don’t, but i digress… thanks so much for the comment and suggestions!

  • Erika

    Ginger tea, is like a magical elixir of stopping cramps. Seriously. Nothing has stopped my cramps in their tracks quite like it!

  • Rosen_art

    Vitamin D – I am telling you it is a life changer! My symptoms are much worse in the winter months then the summer, and after like 10 years, and hundreds of mortifying period weeks later, it finally hit me!! Vitamin D 1000 to 2000 Iu a day will make everyone woman’s life better!

  • ede

    I have intense cramps almost every month that i throw up sometimes. Ginger tea relieves the pain sometimes and also lying on top of big books on my stomach has helped as well 🙂

  • MauiMeg60

    tho i am free from those days, I have read (and find it to be true) that a daily orgasm improves health if achieved every day….

    • Kate Barnett

      probably in every area of health!

  • marygur

    TENS machine – my pain was so bad but i also had reactions to lots of painkillers and a tens machine is the perfect answer. i also try to get warm and move as much as possible.

  • Beauty Groomers

    My favorite one is filled with rice and has some lavender which is relaxing and smells nice.

    How to get a perfect cupid’s bow