Also known as dysmenorrhea, menstrual cramps are throbbing, aching pains that tend to occur in the lower abdomen at or around the time of menstruation. They are associated with the uterine muscle contractions that help shed and expel this organ’s lining during every cycle. The pain of menstrual cramps can range from mild to intense. It typically starts a couple of days before your menstrual period and stops two or three days afterward. You’re more likely to experience severe cramping if you’re younger than age 30, have a family history of dysmenorrhea, have endometriosis or uterine fibroids, or smoke.
The conventional treatment for menstrual cramps is usually over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Some doctors may recommend hormonal contraceptives (including birth control pills, patches, and implants) to help prevent ovulation and reduce the frequency and severity of cramps. Applying wet heat to your abdomen may provide temporary relief.
Although some women choose to avoid physical activity during their period, exercise, including stretching, can also help. One 2019 review of 12 previously published studies on exercise and menstrual cramps found that many different activities — from yoga to aerobics — were associated with reduced intensity of pain from cramps. All studies involved regular exercise throughout the month, although some asked women not to exercise during their periods (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, September 20, 2019).
As for stretching, several yoga poses may help alleviate menstrual pain. These include forward folds and bends, cat/cow stretches, cobra pose, and fish pose. These are best performed when your muscles are loose (such as after a warm shower); hold each for 30 to 60 seconds. The deep belly breathing that accompanies yoga may also help ease cramping and pain.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Armour M, Ee CC, et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, “Exercise for dysmenorrhea,” September 20, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004142.pub4