Menstrual Pain and Chinese Medicine – what does it mean?

There are natural therapies which can help treat menstrual pain.  Period cramps, or “dysmenorrhea” as they are known in medical language, can range from mild to severe, can be in the abdomen or in the lower back (or both), and can have several different characteristics.  They usually occur at the time of ovulation or before, during or after menstruation.



There are 2 classifications of period pain.  Primary (also known as “Functional”) Dymenorrhea is pain when there is no diseases present in the reproductive organs, and is thought to be a result of uterine contraction, prostaglandin release, and lack of oxygen flow to the endometrial lining.  Secondary (also known as “Organic”) Dysmenorrhea results from pelvic disease or an anatomical reason (for example endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammation, narrow cervix…).

For some reason in our western culture, we have come to think of menstrual cramps as being “normal” because they are so common.  It may have been not such a bad thing when menstrual cramps could be used as a valid excuse to get you out of gym class.  But if menstrual pain (or, any pelvic discomfort) is disrupting your daily or work life, further investigation is most definitely warranted.



We have a saying in Chinese Medicine:

Where there is pain, there is no circulation.

Where there is circulation, there is no pain.

So, all pain is actually your body’s way of telling you that there is something wrong.  It is not a “woman’s curse” to have pain on a monthly basis.  Menstruation is a normal, healthy part of a woman’s physiology which shouldn’t cause discomfort.  If you dread your period because it is causing you pain, something is out of balance in your body which is negatively affecting the circulation of your energy and / or blood.  And, it should be investigated.



Pathological factors can disrupt the smooth flow of blood and / or energy.  When the flow is disrupted, pain may be the result.  Not all menstrual cramps are created equally, and for that reason in Chinese Medicine they are treated very differently.  Different herbal formulas and different acupuncture points will be selected depending on which pattern of disharmony is present.  Here are some of the most commonly seen patterns associated with menstrual pain according to Chinese Medicine theory.

Stagnation of Energy / Qi.  This is probably the most common form of menstrual pain that I see in the clinic.  It is usually the result of stress, or chronic strong emotions such as depression, anger, frustration, or unfulfilled desires and corresponds to Primary Dysmenorrhea.  In Chinese Medicine theory, stress or strong emotions can make circulation unsmooth and inconsistent.  The characteristics of this type of pain is dull, achey, or distending, and it may come and go.

Stagnation of Blood.  This pattern of disharmony results from the impairment of blood circulation, and is also commonly seen in the clinic.  Often (but, not always) a pelvic disease such as endometriosis is present and corresponds to Secondary Dysmenorrhea.  This can result from injury, immune system dysfunction, or can be the long term effect of chronic stagnation of Qi.  The characteristics of this type of pain are sharp, stabbing, localized, consistent, and often worse at night.

 Accumulation of Cold, or Cold-Damp, in the Uterus.  This concept is unique to Chinese Medicine – that cold food, cold beverages, cold weather, and being in cold water can “invade” the uterus and cause cramping and spasms that can be quite severe.  These kind of cramps respond well to hot water bottles, and are aggravated by ice cream and slurpees (although, very few women seem to make that association on their own).

 Damp-Heat in the Lower Jiao.  This kind of cramp can happen throughout a woman’s cycle, but are often more pronounced during menstruation.  They are related to chronic pelvic inflammation or PID.  The cramps may feel burning and become worse with heat.  They are sometimes accompanied by a foul smell, yellow vaginal discharge, and low fever.

 Deficiency of Qi, Blood or Yin.  Not very many women seek medical attention for this kind of discomfort.  Usually presenting as dull cramps at the end of the period or during the follicular phase of the cycle, this kind of pain is the result of a lack energy or fluids which disrupts circulation.

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