Got Cramps? Self-Acupressure Can Help Ease Menstrual Pain

Modern technology meets ancient healing to help ease period pain.

Posted Aug 15, 2018

Pain is a significant problem worldwide. Persistent pain is physically and emotionally taxing, linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression, and can induce feelings of helplessness. Although most pain conditions affect both women and men, certain conditions, such as menstrual pain, affect women exclusively. And most women have at some point experienced painful periods.

Silviarita/Pixabay. "Belly Heart," Creative Commons, no attribution needed.
Source: Silviarita/Pixabay. "Belly Heart," Creative Commons, no attribution needed.

Treating Menstrual Pain

Specifically, pain associated with the menstrual cycle, otherwise known as primary dysmenorrhea, affects approximately 80 percent of women. For about 15 percent of these women, the pain is severe enough to take a significant toll on well being and result in missing work and important social and other obligations.

The commonly prescribed conventional treatments for menstrual pain include hormonal contraceptives (i.e., “the pill”) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDS; e.g., ibuprophen, naproxen). However, nearly a quarter of women either experience unpleasant side effects from these medications, obtain inadequate pain relief, or both. Given the challenge of managing menstrual pain and the issues associated with available medications, there is a need for interventions that are low risk, affordable, and easy to implement. Self-acupressure meets these criteria and may offer women the added benefit of feeling they have some control over their pain management via being active participants in this process.

The Current Study

The existing body of research has found that more than two-thirds of women with menstrual pain practice some form of self-management. Given the widespread use and appeal of smartphone apps, researchers in Berlin, Germany sought to learn whether a smartphone-based self-acupressure app could help women reduce pain related to menstrual cramping. 

In this study, 221 participants were assigned to either a self-acupressure or a control group. Both groups received apps. The control participants received an app that provided information about the menstrual cycle, as well as questionnaires and a diary. Participants in the acupressure group received this same information as well as information about acupressure, and photos and videos instructing participants how to correctly perform self-acupressure for menstrual pain. 

The app used in this study also featured a timer that guided acupressure group participants to stimulate each acupressure point for one minute before moving on to the next one. In order to enhance adherence to this regimen, the app delivered a reminder to perform self-acupressure each day for five days prior to the expected onset of menstruation.

The primary outcome of interest was the average pain intensity assessed via a numerical rating scale. The researchers also collected data on worst pain, duration of pain, use of pain medication, days of work missed due to menstrual pain, and other information. This data was collected via the app.

After six months, women in the control group were provided instruction in self-acupressure via an app feature that was unlocked following the conclusion of the study. 

The Results

The results of this study showed that although both those in the acupressure and control groups had a reduction in pain by the three and six month marks, this reduction was statistically significantly greater in the acupressure group. In addition, the improvements regarding worst pain intensity, pain duration, and use of pain medication were also greater in the acupressure group. There was no difference between the groups in terms of the number of sick days taken. With regard to suspected adverse events, in the acupressure group, 15 women reported adverse events, the most common being bruising (5 women) and a change in menstrual cycle (3 women).

Overall, adherence to the app-guided acupressure protocol was good. Although more research needs to be done regarding the potential risks and benefits of acupressure for menstrual pain, the results of this study suggest that it is an easy-to-implement, inexpensive, and efficacious tool for decreasing the intensity and duration of menstrual pain and may decrease the need for pain medication. 

If you are interested in using acupressure for menstrual or other pain, it’s worth consulting with your gynecologist and a licensed massage therapist or acupuncturist trained in this modality. For more information, see the link below to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s section on acupuncture, which also provides information on traditional Chinese medicine (both acupuncture and acupressure fall under this heading).

NCCIH Information on Acupuncture.

References

Blödt, S., Pach, D., von Eisenhart-Rothe, S., Lotz, F., Roll, S., Icke, K., & Witt, C. M. (2018). Effectiveness of app-based self-acupressure for women with menstrual pain compared to usual care: a randomized pragmatic trial. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 218(2), 227-e1.