relief

Soothing Relief: Using a Heating Pad for Cramps

Do you dread the days when it takes all of your motivation just to get out of bed and do your regular activities? Menstrual pain is one of the most commonly shared experiences out there, but so many women think there’s nothing they can do when it arrives every month.

When menstrual cramps arrive, you might reach for the ibuprofen and hope for the best. But there’s another way that may relieve some of the pain and help you relax at the same time: heating pads.

Here’s how heating pads can help ease the pain from period cramps so you can get back to doing the things you love.

What Causes Period Cramps

Over 84 percent of women report having period cramps.1 It’s not a fun experience, and you’re far from alone in dealing with it.

The scientific term for menstrual pain is dysmenorrhea, and there are two types of dysmenorrhea:

  • Primary dysmenorrhea is what most women experience as period cramps. This is the pain that comes back with every period to try to ruin your plans all over again.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhea is menstrual pain that’s related to a separate disorder or condition.

Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps

Menstrual cramps are one of the most common causes of pelvic pain in women.2 Typical period cramps—primary dysmenorrhea—often start one to two days before your period. For many women, the pain might last between one and three days.

That pain might occur in your abdomen and back, as well as in your thighs and hips.

Other than the soreness and pain that you know so well, symptoms that often accompany period cramps include the following:

  • Feeling tired
  • Abdominal pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches

Prostaglandin and Cramps

So what causes those irritating and uncomfortable menstrual cramps?

The culprit is a chemical called prostaglandin—a compound that’s not a hormone but has hormone-like effects on your body. Your body produces prostaglandins when it breaks down endometrial cells during your menstrual cycle. One of the main effects of prostaglandin is making the uterus contract.

When your body produces prostaglandin and your uterus contracts more than usual—as it often does during your period—it restricts the flow of oxygen to your muscles, causing cramps.

Who Experiences Menstrual Pain?

10 percent of women experience menstrual pain so severe that it’s difficult or impossible to carry out typical daily activities.3 Women under 20 years old often experience worse menstrual pain, with period cramps becoming milder or going away completely after a woman gives birth for the first time.3

The Science Behind Using Heat Pads for Cramps

Cramps are caused by tight muscles and poor circulation that restricts oxygen flow. A heating pad helps promote blood flow, increasing circulation and delivering that much-needed oxygen to your abdominal muscles.

By helping relax your muscles, heating pads act as a natural way to relieve pain and pressure. And heating pads are an extremely accessible form of heat therapy that you can do right at home, whenever you’re feeling pain.

Scientific research has shown that using heat therapy may help relieve period pain. Applying local heat with heating pads, warm towels, and hot water bottles helps relax tense, cramped muscles, according to a study in Scientific Reports.

Research shows that treating period cramps with heat may also help increase blood circulation, which can reduce inflammation that contributes to the pain.4

The study in Scientific Reports found that heat therapy was more effective at relieving period cramps than analgesic medication. However, heating pads don’t have to be your only tool in the battle against period pain—in addition, you can take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or pain reliever if your pain is especially severe.

What to Look for in a Heating Pad for Cramps

When all you want is immediate pain relief and a break from those unwelcome cramps, heat therapy may be just what you’re looking for. Heating pads for cramps are an easy, fast, convenient way to relieve period pain and help you go about your daily tasks in comfort.

There are a few different types of heating pads and simple sources of heat that are easily available, and some even come with added comfort features.

Hot Water Bottles

The simplest heating pads are nothing more than water bottles wrapped in soft, decorative covers (or even just a towel). You simply fill the bottle with hot water, slip the cover over it and place it against your body where you’re feeling menstrual cramps.

There are many products available that take this concept to the next level, from microwaveable plastic bottles to covers with fun designs and luxurious materials. With a hot water bottle, you can easily moderate the heat by wrapping the bottle in another towel to make it milder. And when it cools down, simply reheat it or add fresh hot water to start again.

Electric Heating Pads

Many women prefer electric heating pads that come with adjustable temperature controls. These pads come in different sizes, and some of them are large enough to cover most of your upper body.

Look for a heating pad with an automatic shut-off feature that lets you relax and forget it’s even there until it automatically turns off after a desired length of time.

For even deeper relaxation and tension relief, try a heated massage cushion. A massage cushion or pad will bring the same benefits of heat therapy while also giving you a soothing massage, using either vibrations or kneading massage nodes.

Portable Heating Pads and Patches

Heating patches let you apply localized heat to a specific area, often for longer periods of time. You can wear heating patches under your clothing, making them great for relief in situations where you’d prefer to keep things private. And with different shapes and designs, you can find one that’s comfortable and that lets you move around easily so you’re not stuck on the couch.

Meanwhile, other portable heating pads use battery power to provide adjustable heating, with no outlet required. You’ll even find microwaveable heating pads that you can heat up in a few seconds and that you can sit or lie with for rapid comfort and longer-term relief.

A Hot Bath

If you don’t have a heating pad handy, you can get some of the effects of heat therapy by simply soaking in a hot bath.

When you need a little extra self-love—and that time of the month when you’re dealing with period cramps is exactly when you need a little extra self-love—add a bath bomb or some soothing essential oils to your bath and enjoy the relaxing heat and comforting aromas.

How to Use a Heating Pad for Cramps

Using a heat pad for cramps is as simple as heating up the bottle or turning on the electric heated pad and finding a comfortable position to relax with it. Place it against your back on the couch for a few minutes or wear a patch all afternoon while you’re at work—either way, you may just feel better than you thought you possibly could when period cramps hit.

At home, you’ll need to find where the heating pad feels most comfortable to you. While some women like to rest a heating pad on their back while they’re lying on their stomach, others prefer to lie on their back with the heating pad positioned under their lower back. You can also sit against a pillow on the couch and place the heating pad against your back.

When you’re using an electric heating pad or a standard one, set a timer for 20 minutes, put on your favorite music or the TV show you can’t stop watching, and let go of all of your tension. Whether you’ve chosen a heating pad, patch, or pillow, it may help you find comfort during those days of the month that you never thought you’d escape.

What to Use Along with Heating Pads

Heating pads can provide some relief from menstrual cramps on their own, but you can also follow these tips to help feel better overall:

  • According to Obstetrics and Gynecology, taking an NSAID, such as ibuprofen, can be extremely effective at reducing your body’s production of prostaglandins and relieving period cramps.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Massage the affected area.
  • Practice deep breathing.
  • Do regular exercise, such as yoga or running.

Using a Heating Pad for Cramps Is No Secret

Applying heat is an oft-used treatment for many aches and pains, and it’s a good option for dealing with menstrual pain, too.

Look for a heating pad that includes all the features you want, and if you’re ready for the next level of luxury, treat yourself to a heating pad that’s also a massage cushion.

Medical Disclaimer: This content is provided for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. 

Sources

  1. Prevalence of menstrual pain in young women: what is dysmenorrhea? – PMC
  2. Primary Dysmenorrhea: Diagnosis and Therapy – PubMed
  3. Period pain: Overview – InformedHealth.org – NCBI Bookshelf
  4. Heat therapy for primary dysmenorrhea: A systematic review and meta-analysis of its effects on pain relief and quality of life – PMC