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Pain-free periods: innovative solutions that don’t mess with your hormones

TextAlice Gibbs

Livia devices and CBD oil are increasingly popular, drug-free alternatives to the contraceptive pill and coil – we explore the benefits and risks

Ask, and you’ll find that most women will have something to say about period pain – a normal part of a menstrual cycle. It happens when the muscular wall of the womb tightens, but this is usually so mild that most women cannot feel it. When the wall of the womb contracts, it compresses the blood vessels lining your womb, temporarily cutting off the blood and oxygen supply. Without oxygen, the tissues in your womb release chemicals that trigger pain. While this is happening, your body is also producing chemicals called prostaglandins which encourage more contraction of the womb muscles, increasing pain again. Usually experienced as painful muscle cramps in the tummy, the pain can spread to the back and thighs.

Lucy, 25, has suffered from bad period pain for around eight years. “I previously worked in retail and on many occasions had to go home sick because I couldn’t physically do my job because of the amount of pain I was in,” she explains. “My period pain has always had and continues to have, a large impact on my life and I haven’t found a fix yet,” she says. “I put heat packs down my pants (the type you would use when skiing), I do stretching exercises, I have tried to switch from tampons to period pants as I have heard this can help, and I have tried taking anti-bloating medication. I’m beginning to think the only solution is to try and stop my period altogether through a different method of contraception. But that makes me anxious because of the hormones.”

For every mention of period pain – there is a different solution that someone swears by. From the trusty hot water bottle to quitting smoking and exercise, the NHS suggests taking paracetamol and aspirin to relieve symptoms. Period pain solutions are seemingly as old as time itself, but in recent years, there have been advances in the developments in period pain regulation.

Often, women are prescribed the contraceptive pill to attempt to ease period pains. This is widely thought to work by preventing the production of FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone), but the research surrounding this is limited. In 2012, a study found that while the pill can help to reduce pain, on average, women on the pill assessed their period pain as being only slightly less than non-pill users did. Meanwhile, the negative side effects of the pill, like depression and panic attacks are becoming increasingly well-documented.

Similarly, the Mirena® contraceptive IUS (intrauterine system) has increasingly been used to alleviate painful periods, with the small T-shaped device being used to treat women with endometriosis (when the tissue that lines the uterus grows on the ovaries or fallopian tubes instead, thickening and bleeding in the wrong place). Several small clinical trials have investigated the effectiveness of the Mirena® coil for the treatment of painful periods, with most improvement being reported in the first 12-18 months. The Mirena®, of course, doubles up as effective contraception for up to three years, but can also cause side effects including headaches, vaginal infections (such as thrush), back pain and acne.

Amy, 26, has used both the pill and Mirena® coil to try and relieve her period pains. “The pain basically put me in bed for a few days every month,” she explains. “I was using the pill but stopped because it was messing with my hormones. I was anxious, had a short fuse and other people noticed it. With the coil, the pain definitely hasn’t stopped but it made it so much better in just a few months.”

However, the coil doesn’t work as well for everyone. Michele, 38, had a coil inserted at 28 when the pain got so bad that she was struggling to go about her daily life. “One day, I woke up with extremely itchy hives. I had no idea what caused it. I took an antihistamine and it subsided only to come right back the next morning. It got so bad that I had to take antihistamines first thing and before bed every day,” she says. “I went to a gynaecologist and he told me that I had an allergy to the coil, which is apparently much more common than you think! I had it removed immediately. After that, I took the advice of my mother and started drinking herbal tea. Now, I’m pretty much pain-free.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to period pain relief – where hormones may not work for some, they will be a perfect solution to others. However, women choose to alleviate their pain should not be demonised as we continue to find new solutions to an age-old problem”

In recent years, there has been a move towards alternative, hormone-free and innovative solutions to period pain. Livia, for example, claims to offer the first scientifically-proven wearable solution to period pain relief, in the form of a small device which releases electrical pulses to “keep the nerves busy” and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. Side effect-free, it seems like a perfect solution.

“I absolutely love my Livia!” says one reviewer, “I used to suffer from debilitating cramps, but the second I turn it on, they disappear. I wish I had one 10 years ago!” But with kits starting at £149, this isn’t a cheap solution to monthly pain. “I have been looking at buying a Livia machine recently, but I am always put off by the price! It feels like you have to pay to have a period, then you have to pay even more to have a painful period,” says Lucy.

A more affordable alternative could be CBD-based treatments, following a market boom with many people claiming that it is a brilliant cure for everything from anxiety to pain. Extracted from Cannabis sativa, CBD is one of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids that give the plant its medicinal properties but it can’t get you high. CBD binds to the cannabinoid receptors in our bodies and unlocks them, altering how our cells function and supposedly regulating everything from appetite to sleep.

Ohne is a company dedicated to innovative period products and its holy cramp CBD oil was the UK’s first CBD product marketed for menstrual cramps. “Our holy cramp oil is a unique mix of CBD, hemp oil and essential oils that serve to enhance the properties of the CBD itself,” explains Ohne. “CBD has both relaxant and analgesic effects which means that it has the ability to help relax the uterus muscles and, in turn, reduce pain.”

“I have been recommended CBD products for period pain by numerous people,” says Lucy, “I do actually intend to try them”. But the effects of CBD oils can differ from person to person. “Because CBD works by interacting with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies, it will affect each user different and the dosage will vary,” says Ohne. 

Ellie, 20, has struggled with her period pains since her period started when she was 10. “My periods were a nightmare. I struggled to get out of bed because of the pain. Hot water bottles, heat pads, creams, baths, and painkillers did next to nothing so I was left feeling like I just had to deal with it,” explains Ellie. “I discovered Ohne and CBD oils and saw lots of raving reviews about how they’ve helped people so I decided to give it a try. It takes almost all of my pain away and I’m left feeling fresh and empowered. It sounds so cliché but it’s honestly changed my life.” 

So, with so many different options, what should we be doing about our period pains? “There are many options for relieving period pains, from developing good sleep hygiene to taking vitamins and minerals,” says Temeaka Gray, a nurse with a specialist interest in women’s health. When it comes to the menstrual pain relief methods we looked into, there was a clear winner from her point of view. “I would recommend using a system like Livia’s because it works by interacting with the nerves in a way that blocks them from transmitting to pain receptors.”

“It’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider when you have symptoms so a plan can be developed. It is important to always see a doctor if symptoms increase, become more frequent or if period pain becomes associated with things like headache or vomiting,” adds Gray.

As new solutions to period pain are introduced, there is a societal shift in the way period-related products are marketed, with companies like Ohne having over 12k followers on Instagram and working with a whole host of influencers to promote their products. Other companies have also worked hard in recent years to break down the taboo around periods, with Bodyform’s realistic portrayal of periods airing the first UK TV advert to depict red-coloured menstrual blood in 2017.

“With up to 20 per cent of women suffering from period pain severe enough to interfere with daily activities, there needs to be a clearer solution to how we deal with period pain. Many are turning away from hormone-based solutions due to the astonishing lack of research into birth control and its long-term effects”

Meanwhile, startups like Flo and Freda working with eco-friendly products and donating to charities that support charities like Bloody Good Period in fighting period poverty. All while being unafraid to use words like “period” and “blood” and avoiding terms like “hygiene” and “sanitary” which can be easily depicted as dirty or something that one should be ashamed of.

With up to 20 per cent of women suffering from period pain severe enough to interfere with daily activities, there needs to be a clearer solution to how we deal with period pain. Many are turning away from hormone-based solutions due to the astonishing lack of research into birth control and its long-term effects, and as a result, things like CBD oils or tech innovations like Livia are becoming increasingly popular.  

However we look at it, a recent study in the British Medical Journal found just how disruptive period pain is to daily life. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to period pain relief – where hormones may not work for some, they will be a perfect solution to others. However women choose to alleviate their pain should not be demonised as we continue to find new solutions to an age-old problem.

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