Period pains are real. Don’t just take my word for it though. Go to the Childbirth Pain Experience Centre, where the nurses can crank up the labor pain machine to Level 6, which they say resembles period pain, and then let’s talk.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about solutions.
Most western doctors would suggest a pain killer like ibuprofen. I agree. It is quick, effective and easy: go to a pharmacy and ask for bu luo fen (布洛芬). However, a painkiller merely cures the symptoms, not the underlying cause. In comes Traditional Chinese Medicine.
What TCM Says Causes Period Pain
TCM practitioners believe period pains are caused by imbalance of qi and blood, yin and yang, and this imbalance is usually the result of cold (寒).
Doctor Harry Jiang of Columbia Clinic gave me a vivid but simple illustration, which may not be 100% accurate but is good enough for us amateurs. Think of a water pump. The pump is yang. The water flowing through the pipes is yin. Qi would be the water pressure. So what happens when you have period pains? In Jiang’s analogy, they are something like the result of cold weather: the water can’t flow freely because it’s frozen. So what can you do? Put more pressure on the pump to try to move the water or warm the pipe. That’s what TCM treatments aim to do.
Ginger and Brown Sugar Tea
This is what most Chinese girls use to treat cramps. The drink is hot and sweet, and it will warm your stomach quickly. A lot of people add red dates. However, Dr. Jiang disapproves and says that if it works, it’s only because the tea is hot and warmth always helps.
Acupuncture and Moxibustion
Acupuncturists can treat period pain by inserting needles in specific acupuncture points. Here’s a list of places who can do that for you. But Dr. Jiang suggests using acupressure, which you can do yourself, by pressing two specific points on your hand and above your ankle.
Moxibustion is often used to treat menstrual pain as well. It is a treatment of burning a tightly rolled cigar of dried mugwort grass over particular points on the body, which then carry qi into the body. For menstrual pains, the treatment usually focuses on the uterus area. Most places who do acupuncture will also do moxibustion.
Common sense but how many of you have eaten ice cream or worn crop tops during your period? According to Dr. Liu Aiwu from Body & Soul who has been practicing gynecology for 37 years, that could make your cramps worse. Liu suggests that women eat warm food and drinks and avoid exposing their bodies to cold. Also — yes, a cliché, but… — hot water. Drink hot water. It soothes cramps.
Traditional Chinese Herbs
I went to the Shanghai Municipal Hospital of TCM, which focuses on Chinese herbs, for more answers. For 40rmb, I got to see gynecologist Dr. Qian Yun. She did the classic four methods of diagnosis (望闻问切): observation; auscultation and olfaction; interrogation; and feeling and palpating the pulse.
She asked about my lifestyle, sex life and the details of my period. She wanted to know it alllllllll. Be prepared. But that info goes into giving you a comprehensive analysis.
She also suggested a vaginal ultrasound scan (around 200rmb) to determine the position of the uterus, but when asked if it was painful, she just told me “to be calm.” I didn’t do it. Instead, she wrote a tailored prescription that included all kinds of herbs with archaic and botanical names (cattail pollen, common burred rhizome, zedoary) while cautioning me that everyone is different, and even if you have the same symptoms as your friend, your prescription will be different.
And finally, a rather extreme solution.
This was not offered by any of the doctors I saw and it has nothing to do with TCM. But I’ve always heard people say that the cramps get better after a woman goes through labor. As weird as it sounds, the three doctors I consulted all approved this statement, saying that is possible. The theory is that giving birth will reposition your uterus, which is likely to put the displaced endometrial tissue back on track, curing endometriosis. That’s why it might work for women who got period pains because of endometriosis. Maybe try this?
However, if you have experienced period pain for a while and it has been interfering in your normal life, we strongly suggest you go to a hospital and get it checked. It’s a big deal and you should put more effort in caring for yourself! Here’s a list of hospitals that can help.