Those who menstruate know that periods often come with a whole slew of unwanted symptoms, from headaches to nausea to — perhaps most commonly — cramping. Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for period cramps, is a result of “the normal inflammatory process that occurs as a result of ovulation, the release of a mature egg from the ovary,” explains Dr. Lynae Brayboy, the chief medical officer at period-tracker app Clue. This process is typically associated with the uterus contracting each month to shed its lining when a pregnancy does not occur, and that motion is felt right above the pubic bone, the upper and inner thighs, and the back.
This process, and the pain associated with it, can’t be completely stopped without a trip to the doctor’s office and a prescription for hormonal birth control (and sometimes that doesn’t even take care of the problem). But there are more accessible options for pain relief. We talked to Brayboy and four other health professionals and experts about some of the over-the-counter remedies they recommend. It’s important to note that all of our experts encourage having an open dialogue about your period with a health-care provider. “The period is the fifth vital sign,” says Devon Klauck, the lead nurse practitioner at women’s health clinic Tia. “It’s really an indicator of your overall health.” If your period is abnormally heavy or painful, causing you to miss out on work or daily activities, it’s especially crucial to talk to a doctor, says Klauck. “You shouldn’t be missing out on life because of your period pain.”
Ahead, find 21 over-the-counter period-cramp remedies for pain management, including everything from the ibuprofen you likely already have in your medicine cabinet to CBD lube.
Getting the most traditional remedy out of the way first, we have nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs, for short). These are either ibuprofen, like Advil or Motrin, or naproxen, such as Aleve. Almost everyone we spoke to agree that these will provide some level of relief because they directly target the problem. “They block prostaglandins, which are the primary compounds that cause cramping and pain during the period,” says Klauck. She prefers ibuprofen over Tylenol or aspirin, which do not target the prostaglandins. In fact, “aspirin actually reduces blood clotting, so it could cause a period to be a little bit heavier,” she adds. Klauck isn’t a fan of Midol either. Despite being targeted to people with periods, it’s not an NSAID, she says, plus it contains caffeine and a diuretic, which can lead to dehydration.
When taking an NSAID, Dr. Rashmi Kudesia, a medical adviser for online birth-control company SimpleHealth, says you can take up to 800 milligrams every eight hours, but she does not advise going above that. “If somebody knows that they have really bad cramps and wants to kind of knock it out, then that’s a pretty high dose,” she says. However, if it’s your first time taking ibuprofen, she recommends starting with 400 or 600 milligrams. And you don’t have to wait until you’re already in pain to take something. Tamandra Morgan, a second-year resident physician at the University of California San Francisco, says, “Taking NSAIDs several days in advance of your cycle can help alleviate and reduce associated cramping.”
Supplements are Klauck’s go-to when managing period-cramp pain. “There’s really not anyone whom I wouldn’t recommend magnesium to,” she says, explaining that it’s good for a number of things, including sleep quality, muscle relaxation, and pain relief. As it pertains to periods, “magnesium is really great for reducing prostaglandins, which are phospholipid components that are secreted by tissues and cause that cramping and pain,” she says. Klauck specifically recommends magnesium with glycinate because while “some forms of magnesium can cause GI distress or diarrhea,” glycinate is less likely to cause side effects.
Vitamin B is something both Klauck and Kudesia say is essential. Klauck thinks it’s an especially beneficial supplement for vegans and vegetarians who might be deficient in vitamin B12 due to their diet. B12, she adds, can ease mood changes that can happen before and during your cycle. “It helps boost neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which is very important for a balanced mood,” she says.
Klauck is also a fan of zinc because, like magnesium, it regulates prostaglandins. “It works to inhibit the prostaglandins that cause a lot of the pain associated with periods and inflammation, and it also supports normal production of testosterone, which in female health is important for mood and libido,” she says.