By the time I was in my late teens, I’d developed a personalized routine for reducing the effects of period cramps. A key feature of my plan is a nightly hot bath, otherwise known as my “survival bath,” but I wonder if the benefits of the bath could possibly be in my imagination.
Does a bath truly help cramps, and if so, why? A hot bath will ease menstrual cramping. The reason is that before and during menstruation, the uterine tissue contracts as the lining is shed. It is this contraction that causes cramping. A hot bath relaxes the pelvic muscles and relieves cramps.
However, every bath is not created equal when it comes to muscle relaxation. Read on to find out what types of baths work best for cramp relief:
Why a Hot Bath Helps Cramps
As you’re probably all too well aware, a period typically lasts 3-7 days. That can be 3-7 days of curling up in a ball, clutching your stomach, and trying to figure out how you could possibly get to school or work. And this is not to mention the several days before you actually start to bleed when you also can feel crampy.
Well, it’s no wonder you feel like hell. Think of what your body is doing? It’s shedding mucosal tissue and blood. And how does it accomplish such a feat? Through contracting your uterus. (If it weren’t so painful, you might even be in awe of the process.)
Anyway, anything you can do to increase the blood flow through your pelvic floor will relax the muscles and ease cramps. And heating up your insides increases blood flow.
I naturally gravitate toward heating pads, hot water bottles, and warm washcloths. I also crave soup during my period. And guess what? There’s a reason for this, too. Hot liquids like soups and teas actually warm us up from the inside out.
If a heating pad heats you a little, and soup heats you up more, a hot bath can warm you from head to toe, from the inside out, and do such a good job that it raises your internal temperature.
So a little bit of sweat in the tub bodes well for eradicating cramps.
But dehydration is a risk while on the rag, since you’re already losing bodily fluids. With this in mind, you don’t want the bath to be so hot that you’ve got to leave quickly or you sweat profusely. Put a thermos of water on your bathtub ledge for drinking, and aim for a comfortable, warm bathwater temperature.
What Types of Baths Are Best for Cramps?
Since the goal is to relax my muscles, I like to add something to the bathwater to help achieve this. Epsom salt is said to release magnesium, and magnesium is a known relaxant. Though there is no peer-reviewed research yet to back up anecdotal reports, I’m a firm believer that the magnesium from Epsom salt is penetrating my skin barrier and working its magic.
When you inhale an aromatherapy oil like eucalyptus or lemongrass, you probably feel instantly relaxed. When I was in graduate school for public policy, I used to get headaches. (Who wouldn’t?) So between classes, I used to walk into a natural healing store that had plenty of essential oils. I would just sniff around and the headache would quickly disappear—that is, until the next time we talked about the elasticity of the income tax. (Ugh!)
Or until the next time my bloody friend came calling.
But this is all to say that I wasn’t surprised to learn that there is hard evidence to support the impact of aromatherapy oils on relieving cramps.
What Are the Most Helpful Essential Oils?
A 2013 study examined two cohorts: 7 days before their periods, the women in the control group received abdominal massages with a base almond oil. During the same time, women in the experimental cohort received abdominal massage with essential oils, including cinnamon, clove, rose and lavender. Researchers found that the aromatherapy group had a statistically significant decrease in pain and bleeding during menstruation as compared to the control group.
Specifically, the researchers called out two herbs as especially helpful. These are cinnamon and rose. The researchers wrote:
Our results may be attributed to the effect of cinnamon which helps to treat excessive menstrual bleeding and to support the actions of estrogen, and rose which has a great effect on the uterus and helps regulate the menstrual cycle and reduce excessive bleeding
Why not add cinnamon and rose essential oil to your bath to ease cramps?
In addition, though not mentioned by these particular scientists, there is quite a bit of research to support lavender oil’s calming effects. And who doesn’t need calming while experiencing menstrual cramps? Just be sure to use the number of drops recommended on the essential oil bottle.
What Can I Do in the Bath to Relieve Cramps?
Gentle Stretching or Yoga
Research supports gentle stretching or yoga to alleviate menstrual cramps. Exercise releases endorphins that are the body’s natural pain relievers, and you can launch those endorphins while you soak. Here are a few exercises:
Wind Relieving Pose
Pull one knee into your chest and hold for 10 seconds. Then repeat with the other knee. Now pull both knees into your chest at the same time and again, hold 10 seconds.
Modified Happy Baby
If you know the yoga pose called happy baby, you might try a variation of this in the bathtub. Bend your right knee alongside your chest and flex your foot. Thread your right hand from the inside of your right calf around to hold onto the outside of your flexed right foot. Gently press the foot down toward your chest. This will give a great stretch to the right side of your groin. Hold 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
During the menstrual cycle, as the egg travels through the fallopian tube, you’re likely to experience abdominal and lower back pain. For relief, I like to do trigger point therapy in the bathtub by using a small rubber ball.
According to Painscience.com, trapping the ball between your aching muscles and the bottom of the tub will apply pressure to the trigger point. He writes:
I call this “the bath trick,” because it’s such an amazing combination of therapeutic factors….While the heat relaxes you, your bouyancy in the water allows finely tuned control over moderate pressure on your trigger points. Applying a little more or less pressure is as simple as rising up in the water a little, or submerging more of yourself.
Unfounded Myths about Bathing During Menstruation
It’s hard to believe that in some parts of the globe, a woman is still isolated from her family or the entire community during menstruation. Myths about period blood abound, shaming girls and women everywhere.
One such superstition that is still alive and well: Bathing while menstruating is unsafe, bad for your health, and can impact future fertility.
But this bathing-during-period superstition is about as medically sound as the myth that if you cook tomato sauce while on your period it turn out to be a disaster. Or worse, that if you have sex with your partner while on your period, prepare to watch your partner drop dead. Yeah, really.
So Does a Bath Help Cramps?
Yes. The fact is that a warm bath will relax the muscles, relieve cramps and can also alleviate PMS anxiety. It also has the mental benefit of allowing you to feel clean. And these benefits, overall, can make you a happier human.
For other relaxing bath ideas, see 21 Relaxing Bath Ideas That Take Me-Time to the Next Level and How to Take The World’s Most Perfect Bath.
What else relieves period cramps fast? You can try ibuprofen to reduce inflammation, but one study showed over-the-counter fish oil is even more effective. Aside from applying heat to the abdomen and exercising gently, other proven methods for alleviating menstrual cramps include having an orgasm to increase blood flow to the pelvis. Resting is beneficial, too. Birth control can be used proactively to reduce or fully suppress vaginal blood flow, which may reduce cramps. Consult your gynecologist if you’re interested in a prescription.
What foods help cramps? Heating the body from the inside by drinking tea or soup increases blood flow to the pelvis and can reduce cramps. One study found that chamomile tea is especially helpful in this respect. The study discovered that chamomile tea relieves muscle spasms, and the effects last for weeks after a person stops drinking it. Other foods that ease menstrual cramps include foods with omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil and walnuts, and foods that contain ginger.