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Ask a GP: What helps ease period pain?

A doctor explains why that time of the month can hurt  – and the treatments that actually stop the discomfort.

Picture: iStock

It’s that time of the month again and by now you’re probably very familiar with the physical discomfort that comes with a period. As a matter of fact, period pain is one of the most common health issues for women.

Period pain refers to pain in the lower abdomen which can occur just before or during your period and usually lasts for around two to three days. The severity of period pain ranges from a mild annoyance to pain bad enough to interfere with normal day-to-day activities. The good news is that many treatments are available to help relieve period pain, but choosing the one that will work best for you may not always be easy.

Why are my periods so painful?

Period pain is mainly due to the release of chemicals called prostaglandins from the lining of the uterus (womb). The release of prostaglandins causes the muscles in your uterus to contract so that you can expel your monthly bleed, which may cause pain in some women. Women with higher levels of prostaglandins may experience stronger cramps and pain.

Over-the-counter medicines

Many women find over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to be helpful in relieving period pain. You won’t need a prescription to buy these medicines and many are available in pharmacies, supermarkets and health stores.

Anti-inflammatory medicines

Anti-inflammatory medicines can relieve period pain for many women. They temporarily stop the body from producing prostaglandins.

Common OTC anti-inflammatory medicines that help relieve period pain contain active ingredients such as ibuprofen (common brands include Nurofen, Advil), mefenamic acid (a familiar brand is Ponstan) or naproxen (found in the brand product Naprogesic). Ask your pharmacist which one is the best option for you. Some of these medicines are only available from pharmacies.

Are anti-inflammatory medicines suitable for me?

Anti-inflammatory medicines may not be suitable for everyone. They may irritate the stomach or interact with other medicines. It’s important that you eat something before taking anti-inflammatory medicines. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before starting anti-inflammatory medicines if you have a history of any of the following: stomach ulcers, reflux, asthma, kidney, heart or any other health problems.

Paracetamol and other options

For mild cramps, pain-relief medicines containing the active ingredient paracetamol (the best known brand is Panadol) are also helpful for many women. When taken as directed on the packet, paracetamol is generally well tolerated by most people.

Some women also benefit from non-medicine options such as heat packs, exercise, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or acupuncture.

Medicines containing codeine

Medicines containing small amounts (low-dose) of codeine such as Panadeine and Nurofen Plus can be currently bought over-the-counter and are a preferred pain relief option for some women. However, from 1 February 2018, because of changes made by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, all medicines containing codeine will require a prescription.

Why is codeine becoming prescription-only?

For most people, OTC medicines containing low-dose codeine provide very little extra pain relief when compared with medicines that do not contain codeine.

Despite this very small benefit, there are serious risks associated with taking medicines containing codeine. Some people can become dependent on these medicines and develop withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and insomnia when they stop taking them.

If your pain interferes with daily life

Period pain usually gets less painful as you get older. Speak with your doctor, nurse or sexual health practitioner if you experience severe period pain or if symptoms are unusual, persist longer than expected or prevent you going to work or school.

Some women may find that the combined contraceptive pill (the Pill), or other hormone treatment, helps with the pain, though this is not suitable for everyone.

If you have severe pain, you may need tests to rule out other causes: consult a health professional if you are concerned.

For information on medicines you can phone the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424), Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm AEST (excluding NSW public holidays).

Dr Jill Thistlethwaite is a general practitioner with over 25 years’ experience. She is also a health professional education consultant and NPS MedicineWise Medical Advisor.

21-year-old woman has suffered a ‘catastrophic’ blood clot caused by the contraceptive pill Diane 35.

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