7 Ways to Manage Cramps At Work, According to a Doctor
Yes, it's okay to use your sick days.
Remember when we were teenagers and talking about periods seemed like something we shouldn't do? We went to extreme lengths to hide the fact that we were menstruating, like tucking a tampon into our long sleeve shirts while going to the bathroom or calling our cramps a "stomachache." Now in 2021, conversations surrounding periods and period-related symptoms are way more open, accepted, and (dare we say) celebrated. But in professional settings, there's something about telling your boss that you have cramps that still feels weird.
Period talk isn't as widely accepted or normalized in the workplace, like on social media or amongst friends. But when period cramps strike, they can completely derail your day—and you can thank a specific hormone for making this happen. "Most cramps are from a hormone that is released in the body at the time around your period called prostaglandins," says gynecologist, Dr. Kelly Copeland, M.D. "These hormones cause uterine contractions and are associated with pain and inflammation."
Instead of succumbing to uncomfortable pain throughout the workday, we're offering up some advice for how to reduce pain from cramps at work, including how to normalize the conversation with your superiors and general tips to keep you productive, if you so choose.
How to relieve period cramps at work:
Plan your work schedule around your cramps, if possible.
The first tip in maintaining a sense of control over your work life—instead of feeling as though your periods are controlling you—is to track your period, says Ann Roberts, chief people officer at Flo. "Tracking your internal changes throughout the different stages of the menstrual cycle is empowering," she says. Keeping up with your cycle can help you determine when you're going to experience cramps, and help you plan ahead at work so you can take some time off or reserve for low-lift tasks. To do that, however, it's important to know the four stages of your cycle.
The first is the follicular stage, which Roberts says is the time to be most productive during the menstrual cycle because progesterone hormone levels are low, which has a sedative effect on the body. The lack of progesterone may make you feel more energized to complete in-depth tasks.
Ovulatory phase and luteal phase
Next is the ovulatory phase, followed by the luteal phase, which is a time where you'll begin to experience PMS symptoms due to an increase in progesterone. These hormone fluctuations might make you more introverted and reflective, making it a good time to complete detail-oriented tasks.
The final stage is menstruation, which is when most people experience cramps. During this time, take things slow and listen to your body. "Once you have an understanding of when your last cycle was or where you are currently at in your cycle, you can optimize your work and plan your projects based on each cycle phase," says Roberts.
Be diligent about water intake during your period as a way to combat painful cramps. "Hydration helps keep the muscles in your body (including your uterus) from cramping," says Dr. Copeland. "In addition, it helps keep your bowels moving regularly to prevent any additional lower belly discomfort this time of the month." Roberts recommends drinking at least nine to ten glasses of water during menstruation.
Pack a healthy lunch.
Opting for a well-balanced lunch packed with anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce pain, says Dr. Copeland. Try foods like salmon, leafy greens, and turmeric. She also recommends staying away from refined carbohydrates (sweets, white bread, or pasta) and foods high in fats (fried foods, red meat, saturated fats) because it can increase inflammation making pain worse. "These foods can also increase bloating or cause additional discomfort from gastrointestinal upset," she says.
Move your body.
While the last thing you might want to do when experiencing cramps is intense movement, exercising can actually help relieve pain. "When you exercise, your body releases endorphins which are known to play a great role in pain management," says Roberts.
According to Dr. Copeland, exercising produces endorphins, which help to block the pain signals from elsewhere in the body. "Secondly, it helps increase blood flow, which can relieve muscle tension, even in places like the uterus."
So, if you can, take a break and do a quick walk around the office to get your blood flowing. You can try stretching in the bathroom or break room, or if you're really ambitious, go for a jog during your lunch break.
Take a day off.
Up to 80% of people who menstruate have painful periods, says Roberts. So, it's completely normal to experience decreased productivity due to menstrual-related symptoms, especially if you have endometriosis, which is a disorder that causes extremely painful periods.
If your cramps are impairing your ability to work, take the day off! It's no different than taking a sick day for a migraine or a cold. "Periods are nothing to be ashamed of, but it's completely understandable why you might prefer to keep it to yourself, so instead, let your supervisor know you're taking a sick day," says Roberts.
Use a heating pad.
Heat helps increase the blood flow to the uterus, which can contribute to muscle relaxation and reduce the production of lactic acid, which induces cramping, says Dr. Copeland. If you don't want to lug around a heavy heating pad at work, there are discreet options you can wear at work, like the Popmask Big Hug Self-Heating Menstrual Cramp Patches. You can stick it onto your underwear and experience up to 12 hours of soothing heat and relief. It's easy to use, and it's small and travel-friendly.
Another great option is the Cora Heat Relief Patch, which is made with soothing herbs and every purchase provides pads and health education to girls around the world.
Take a pain reliever.
If all else fails, anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen or naproxen, work to block the formation of prostaglandins that cause cramps, says Dr. Copeland. "Acetaminophen is another over-the-counter medication that can be used to target pain from your period," she says.
For those who experience extreme pain due to disorders like endometriosis, fibroid, or recurrent ovation cysts, Dr. Copeland says hormonal contraceptives can also help with cramping. However, it's best to discuss a treatment plan with your doctor if none of these tips are working for you.