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.
Most of the supplements mentioned thus far don’t necessarily need to be taken daily, but rather can be used as needed or during your cycle. However, this supplement — which Klauck calls “my absolute favorite” — should be used daily. It’s an all-in-one female multivitamin, probiotic, and herbal support supplement, and in addition to vitamin B and zinc, this also has “vitamin D, which is really important for immunity,” she says. Plus, it has adaptogens and antioxidants, “which are important for anti-inflammation,” she adds, “and it has an herbal supplement called vitex, or chasteberry, which I recommend either on its own or in the Eden supplement.” Chasteberry can reduce the production of prolactin, which contributes to period pain; it can also alleviate breast pain associated with periods and help with hormonal acne. It’s important to note that there is some research that indicates chasteberry might affect your oral contraceptive, so you should talk to your doctor before taking it.
If you are on the Pill, Klauck thinks this De Lune supplement is a good alternative. It’s otherwise similar to HelloEden, but doesn’t have chasteberry. What it does have is “magnesium, zinc, and B6, as well as rhodiola, which is an adaptogenic herb that can help with anxiety, fatigue, and depression,” she says, adding that the acupuncturist at Tia recommends it a lot.
While the De Lune’s Steady Mood is designed to be taken as a daily vitamin, this is specifically formulated for period cramps. It has ginger and calendula for fighting inflammation, as well as dong quai and fenugreek, which are said to soothe uterine muscles. Kudesia specifically recommends it for its zinc and vitamin B; she notes that there are a lot of period supplements with vitamin B, but likes that De Lune has scientific papers cited on its website. “To me, that helps kind of lead to the scientific credibility of some of this stuff, so I appreciate that,” she says.
If you’re looking for an alternative to swallowing pills, tea is an easy way to get some relief. “We keep Traditional Medicinals Raspberry Leaf Tea at Tia for patients to have after exams or procedures that might cause cramping,” Klauck says. “It just has a lot of nutrients and antioxidants, and it’s warm — warm is always what you want to go for when it comes to period cramps.”
Lara Parker, the deputy director at BuzzFeed and author of Vagina Problems, was introduced to these Chinese healing herbs over a year ago. Parker suffers from daily pelvic pain, but says her endometriosis and adenomyosis manifest as particularly bad periods. She experienced negative side effects from prescription painkillers and decided to seek out more natural remedies — and then she found Elix. After a very thorough questionnaire about your period and overall health, Elix develops a personalized liquid supplement based on your needs. They arrive in a little dropper bottle and ship to you monthly — either every 21, 28, or 32 days — to match your cycle. “I just mix them with water,” she says, noting that it’s like a tincture. “I do that in the five to seven days leading up to my period every month, and I think that has helped my pain tremendously.”
In addition to things you can take orally, our experts recommend a number of things to rub, scrub, and soak in during that time of the month. Klauck says the acupuncturist at Tia recommends this CBD salve a lot. “You can put it anywhere where you are having pain,” she says, like your lower abdomen and lower back.