Does acupuncture work for menstrual cramps? We tried it and talked to four experts
As long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with painful periods that include insane cramps. In fact, I often considered myself lucky because my periods — though long, heavy, and served with assorted extra symptoms like anxiety, headaches, and unending fatigue — have always come regularly, and I know that many women would kill to simply know when their period was on the way each month. But like many women, I took oral contraceptives for many years, hoping for the promised (and desperately wanted) lighter flow, fewer cramps, and clearer skin.
But two and a half years ago, I decided that the pill was more trouble than it was worth. Some women’s bodies take to hormonal birth control effortlessly, but my body is not one of them. So even though I wasn’t trying to get pregnant, I decided to stop taking birth control pills. At first, I felt so much better. Without the constant low-grade headaches, bizarre mood swings, and heightened anxiety, I felt like me again.
But then, as my periods got used to their rhythm without the artificial hormones, I remembered my reality: My periods suck.
Like many women, I also assumed this was just the way it was supposed to be. All women suffer through their menstrual cycle, right? That is, until my therapist recommended I try acupuncture to ease my menstrual symptoms, reminding me that we don’t actually have to grit through the pain.
Admittedly, I knew very little about acupuncture (aside from the fact that it involves being pricked with a bunch of tiny needles), but after doing some research, I figured I’d give it a try. Why not. My periods are hell on earth, certainly to a greater degree than whatever this baby needles could throw my way. I am lucky that my health insurance covers regular treatments, since a lot of licensed acupuncturists would be prohibitively expensive to un- or under-insured women.
So I dove into acupuncture, and guys, it wasn’t that bad.
For starters, there’s nothing as relaxing as closing my eyes and listening to music for 20 minutes each week, unable to worry about notifications on my phone or the outside world at large. It’s just me and my thoughts, so the whole things is truly meditative.
But the two periods I have had since starting with regular treatments have been so much better. Suddenly, I’m not relying on painkillers as often to ease menstrual cramps and headaches, but honestly, the benefits are evident all month long. Acupuncture helps my anxiety and moods, while also helping with my insomnia. I’ve slept better than I have in years.
But just because acupuncture has helped me, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. With that in mind, I wanted to ask a few experts to explain more about it for those who aren’t familiar with the traditional Chinese medicine practice we commonly call acupuncture.
I spoke with Dr. Joseph Alban, M.S., L.Ac, a licensed acupuncturist based in New York City; Dr. Frank Lipman, bestselling author and founder of Be Well and the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City; Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, Doctor of Chinese Medicine and Certified Integrative Medical Practitioner in Miami, Florida; and Yunuen “June” Beristain, founder of Amplify Acupuncture and Licensed Acupuncturist and Master of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Basically, I assembled a dream squad to get the low-down on this ancient Eastern medicine practice.
So what is acupuncture, exactly?
Dr. Alban told me, “Acupuncture is a technique of healing using thin needles to stimulate specific areas on the body. It’s based on the idea that illness is caused by imbalances. By correcting the imbalances the body can work to heal itself.” Beristain notes that the needles “stimulate the self-healing system of the body.” Dr. Lipman said, “From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is a therapy that balances the ‘energy’ systems of the body. From a western perspective, it is way of getting a message into and balancing neuro-hormonal mechanisms.”
But what does energy have to do with menstruation, aside from the fact that we feel like we have none around that time of the month? According to Dr. Trattner, acupuncture helps move the energy flow within a woman’s body, which gets “stuck” and is thought to cause the pain we experience with every cycle.
She explains, "Acupuncture is a great way to regulate your cycle and I have many patients that specifically come to see me during their period to build their body up that month and prevent cramps. Stagnation is the main reason for menstrual cramps and PMS. Stasis is when your body’s energy and blood are stuck. Most women with stasis have mood issues, bloating, and cramps with clots."
Basically, inserting the acupuncture needles in strategic spots helps get that blood and energy flowing like it ought to, alleviating many of our biggest menstrual symptoms. Another bonus: Acupuncture can also help regulate your cycle and help to lighten blood flow, as the doctors pointed out.
Aside from helping with monthly ailments due to our menstrual cycle, Dr. Alban explains why acupuncture is “holistic and can improve mind and body.” He says, “Acupuncture is commonly used to naturally heal the body for all types of conditions, including women’s health [issues like] irregular periods, infertility, digestive issues, chronic pain such as back pain, headaches and migraines, knee pain, and injuries. Acupuncture can even help skin conditions such as acne.” Beristain notes its efficacy is proven by how long it has been around, saying, “Acupuncture has been practiced for hundreds of years in many far east regions, which shows just how efficient it is.”
But could inserting needles into your skin come with potentially scary side effects?
All four experts note that acupuncture is safe and has few common side effects, which is why so many prefer it to painkillers and medication. Beristain says, “It is not like a drug or surgery; acupuncture is a very safe, effective, and gentle therapy modality.” She adds that some patients might see slight bruising or light bleeding at the insertion site, but it’s otherwise totally painless. In fact, all I generally feel is a slight sting when needles are inserted into thin parts of my skin, like the tops of my feet and my ears.
What can you expect when you find an acupuncturist you’d like to work with? In your first session, you’ll likely not only discuss your main issue for seeking treatment, but your overall health. Dr. Alban says, “Your acupuncturist will talk about sleep, stress, and digestion,” and might “also ask questions about if you are a hot or cold person physically. This is a reflection of the imbalance that may be causing your symptoms.” The acupuncturist will also look at your tongue and take your pulse, “as these are specific Chinese medicine assessment tools.”
For dysmenorrhea in particular, acupuncture is known as a great preventative measure, and all three doctors recommend regular treatments (weekly is common, but once or twice a month prior to or during your period works, too) for around 3-6 months. Dr. Alban notes, “It can help while you are feeling bad but also helps prevent [pain] from occurring. Usually we will treat for a few cycles. Often women will see improvement after the first month.” After two months of weekly sessions with my acupuncturist, I can safely say that it’s helping me with my dysmenorrhea (the medical term for painful periods) in ways big and small, and I’m continuing to make time in my schedule for regular sessions.
All three experts agree that acupuncture can have long-term improvement, with Dr. Alban noting that “Some people improve and do not need further treatment. Others need ongoing or occasional maintenance,” by way of monthly tune-ups around the start of their cycle.
If you’ve been struggling with heavy, painful, and seemingly never-ending periods, you might want to give acupuncture a try. It certainly can’t hurt and just might be the self-care technique you’ve been missing to finally feel better each month.