If you’re anything like me, you’ve definitely found yourself curled up in bed during your period, desperately willing the four Advil you popped 20 minutes ago to work their magic and wondering if the pain is bad enough to call out sick. It sucks! It truly, truly sucks!
Unfortunately, there's no fairy godmother to snap their fingers and just magically poof away the deep pain, but it's important to remember that you're very much not alone here. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, more than half of people with periods deal with painful cramping every month. Woof. There is some good news though! One treatment for this stabbing pain from hell comes in the wonderful, magical form of *drumroll please* hormonal birth control. See? Great news.
While you may have already heard the (very true!) rumor that The Pill can lessen severe menstrual pain, this A+ side effect can actually be found in multiple different types of birth control.
Wait, so does birth control help with cramps?
Basically, your uterus contracts during your period—meaning it literally cramps up and squeezes in on itself—to shed your uterine lining which is then forced our your body through the vagina. Fun!
This is all thanks to a chemical called prostaglandins. "When the prostaglandins is released from the lining of the uterus, it signals your muscles, particularly your uterus, to contract," explains ob-gyn Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. "But the chemical has to be produced in order for your uterus to contract and for you to feel the cramps. Less prostaglandins means less contracting, thus less cramping."
While there’s no way to get rid of the pesky prostaglandins, you can reduce it by lightening your uterine lining. Make sense?
This is where hormonal birth controls come in. Because of the hormones (safe, synthetic versions of the naturally occurring estrogen and progesterone) found in certain contraceptives, they do so much more than just prevent pregnancy—they are also stellar at minimizing bad cramps.
Can taking birth control for cramps help me?
Do you have a heavy period flow? Do you find yourself wondering if your cramps are actually your uterus about to plop straight out of your vagina? Then, yep, you could definitely benefit from using hormonal birth control for cramps.
However, according to Dr. Jackson-Bey, severe cramps might also be a sign of something else, like endometriosis, which is a condition in which the type of tissue that forms the lining of the uterus is found outside the uterus, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
While hopping on the birth control train is an excellent way to decrease period pain, it’s super important to also share what you're feeling and when you're feeling it with a healthcare professional. This is especially true if your cramps are so bad that you’re missing work or school or just generally having trouble being a functioning human.
Decreasing your flow isn't a one-size-fits-all process, as everyone's prostaglandins production levels vary. The amount of cramp relief you could feel is dependant on the level of hormones in your birth control and the actual type of birth control you end up using. To help you out, we broke down some great options that ob-gyns swear by to release you from cramp purgatory.
Which birth control is best for cramps?
Option #1: The Pill
Ah, a classic. While the once-a-day contraceptive first flew off the shelves as an alternative to condoms and diaphragms when it was introduced in 1960, it’s also a superstar in decreasing severe period cramps. Since the Pill regulates how much estrogen and progesterone enter your body, it forces your period to then follow its own set schedule by decreasing the ovarian production of estrogen and progesterone in your body. This, in turn, prevents ovulation (which prevents pregnancy) and lightens your period over time. That can mean less painful cramping during your cycle, explains Dr. Jackson-Bey.
In fact, many period-having people have found success by using the Pill to skip their period altogether and avoid cramps that way. It’s perfectly safe and something that Dr. Jackson-Bey routinely recommends to her patients with endometriosis or severe dysmenorrhea (the fancy shmancy word for cramps). You can also choose to opt for a pill like Seasonique that does this already or just skip the placebo week (aka week four) in your pack. No period? No cramping.
Option #2: The Ring
I'm sure you remember the NuvaRing commercials of yore (click here to refresh your memory but don't blame me when the jingle gets stuck in your head!), but did you know that it's basically the Pill but...in ring form? And you don't have to take it every day? Into it.
It's a flexible, plastic ring that you insert by yourself into the vagina and take out after a set amount of weeks, followed by one week off (which is when you'd get your period). Because the vaginal mucosa (read: mucus) is super absorbent, the Ring is able to deliver a solid amount of hormones (both estrogen and progesterone) straight through the vagina. According to Dr. Jackson-Bey, thanks to the high level of hormones and your very absorbent vagina, the ring works just like the Pill to prevent pregnancy and cramps by safely turning down your natural bodily production of estrogen and progesterone, preventing ovulation, and lessening your period flow.
Fun fact: You can also skip your period on the ring and avoid cramps by one of two routes. First, you can leave your ring in through the during the "off week," but that might come with a little light spotting. The second way is by swapping out your old ring for a brand new one without any weeks off in between.
Option #3: The Patch
Working similarly to the Pill and the Ring, the Patch adheres to your arm, back, or butt, for weeklong doses. All you need to do is swap it out for a new one every week, and then go patch-free for the fourth week of your cycle. This is when you get your period.
Like the previous options, the Patch contains estrogen and progesterone, which stops ovulation and decreases your period flow over time. But Dr. Jackson-Bey stresses that you shouldn't worry about it falling off like you would a regs Band-Aid, it's incredibly adhesive.
And just like with the Pill and the Ring, you can use the patch to skip your period entirely and avoid cramps that way. Instead of going patchless for week four, just slap a new one on!
Option #4: Hormonal IUDs
Say hello to the superstars of birth control. These babies do it all: 1) they alleviate severe cramps, 2) could make your period disappear altogether, 3) don't use estrogen, and 4) they last for years. No more phone alarms going off in the middle of the workday!
IUDs are a T-shaped device that must be inserted into your uterus (and eventually removed!) by a healthcare professional. Unlike the previous three options, hormonal IUDs don't contain any estrogen, instead, they rely on progesterone to prevent pregnancy. Once inside your uterus, the device releases a small dose of hormones over many years.
Currently, there are four different types of FDA-approved hormonal IUDs on the market:
While all of them have the ability to lessen your cramps and lighten your period, you might find more success with the Mirena and Liletta IUDs since they contain a higher dose of hormones. In fact, because your uterine lining becomes increasingly thinner over time, you could see your period disappear altogether if you decide to use Mirena or Liletta, explains Dr. Jackson-Bey.
But one quick note! While the four hormonal IUDs are excellent options for decreasing period pain, ParaGard (the copper IUD free of hormones) has been shown to increase both cramps and flow, so it’s best to avoid that one if you’re already dealing with painful periods.
Option #5: The Shot
The Depo-Provera shot is just that: a shot you get from your doctor once every three months. It's not just a mystery formula though, it's a long-term delivery of a contraceptive via your muscle that slowly releases progesterone over time. Just like hormonal IUDs, it's progesterone-only and works by thickening the mucus in your cervix to prevent pregnancy while also thinning the lining of your uterus. And a thinner uterine lining = overall less cramping and therefore less pain! We stan.
Fair warning: According to Dr. Jackson-Bey, the Shot could make your uterine lining so thin that you might not get your period at all. Since there's only one on the market unlike with hormonal IUDs and you can't manipulate it like with the Pill, the Patch, or the Ring, this may not be the choice for you if you're a fan of tracking your period. Oh, and the monthly confirmation that you're not preggo.
Option #6: The Implant
Surprise! The Nexplanon implant works almost identically to the Shot and hormonal IUDs. It's a small rod (about the size of a matchstick!) that's placed into your arm. After that, it works to slowly release progesterone into your body to increase mucus in the cervix and decrease the uterine lining.
"One thing to know about the Implant is that it is less effective than hormonal IUDs and the Shot at making your periods disappear," explains Dr. Jackson-Bey. Your periods could also become more irregular and you may experience spotting in the first three to six months of use. But those cramps? Oh yeah, you can say goodbye.
The bottom line:
Consider chatting with your doctor about your options and the pain you're feeling. In the meantime, keep praying to the ibuprofen gods and dream about never feeling that knife-twisting pain again!!
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