For years I thought that having a painful period (dysmenorrhea) was what every woman went through. Women grow up with a general cultural consensus that periods equal pain; you just have to take painkillers, feel miserable, and wait it out. Needless to say I was elated when acupuncture and Chinese herbs gave me a new lease on life with a painless period! I am now delighted to tell every woman who will listen “Did you know, you can have a pain free period?”
How does Chinese medicine explain dysmenorrhea?
From a Chinese medical perspective, dysmenorrhea is similar to other pain conditions. It results from stagnant blood not moving properly. The classical texts say when there is no movement, there is pain, regardless of whether it’s in your knee, back, elbow or uterus.
For a pain-free period to occur, menstrual blood must be both abundant and able to flow. For many young women, blood can be deficient. The can happen for a variety of reasons; it can be due to an unbalanced diet, excessive physical activity, births that are close together, or a long-standing illness. Like a stream that doesn’t have enough water, the blood will become stagnant, and the flow will not be smooth. Other factors that often cause uterine blood stasis are under-dressing in cold and/or wet climates (especially during the teenage years or during menses), emotional strain, and over-consumption of chilled liquids and foods, like ice water. In the latter case, a good analogy would be when a river starts to freeze over, there is a slowing of pace in the flow of water.
Emotional strain is a very important etiological factor, and emotions such as grief, anger, resentment, worry, guilt and frustration can easily stagnate the blood flow. Just think about the way your breath and muscles change when you are experiencing strong emotions; usually the breath is shallower, the muscles tighten and guarded. The same restriction essentially happens to the blood and the uterine muscle. This stagnation causes pain.
How does acupuncture treat painful periods?
First, an acupuncturist will assess what is the root cause of your painful period. The pain itself is simply a symptom. Our goal is to treat the underlying cause, and by doing so help your body achieve a pain free cycle. Eventually, you can continue to have a pain free cycle without the need for regular acupuncture.
To treat dysmenorrhea, your acupuncturist will often use a combination of herbs and acupuncture to be most efficacious. Acupuncture increases blood circulation and relaxes the uterine muscle. Acupuncture and herbs can also warm the blood (in cold conditions), enhance blood (when there’s not enough), and regulate the function of organ systems.
Generally speaking, treatments will be based on the woman’s cycle, with two treatments a month (before and after the menses) being the minimum frequency. Your acupuncturist may want you to be seen weekly for the first month or two if your condition has multiple underlying causes. It will typically take at least 3 menstrual cycles to regulate the body, and patients with longer standing issues or endometriosis should expect longer treatment plans.
There is a great amount of energy that is freed up every month when you don’t have to be in pain for a week, not to mention the dread leading up to the anticipation of your period! As a positive side effect, these dysmenorrhea treatments often clear up PMS symptoms as well, like bloating, irritability, and breast tenderness.
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, I’ll surely be somewhere outdoors. I especially enjoy hiking, cycling, swimming, tennis, and have a dedicated tai chi practice.