Low-impact exercise, heat and acupressure effective for period pain

17 January 2019

Research led by NICM Health Research Institute has found that lifestyle interventions consisting of low-impact exercise, heat and acupressure are among the most effective self-care techniques for managing period pain.

The research findings published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine (opens in a new window), aimed to determine the effectiveness of self-care techniques and lifestyle interventions with managing period pain. Previous studies have found that most women use self-care rather than visiting their doctor, but it wasn’t clear how effective these self-care methods were for managing period pain.

The research was based on studies of more than 2,300 women who had used self-delivered acupressure, exercise or heat as interventions for menstrual pain.

“Whilst over the counter pharmaceuticals can still help many women, we found that lifestyle techniques are a positive way that many women can easily use to manage the often debilitating symptoms of period pain,” said Dr Mike Armour, lead author and postdoctoral research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute.

“Low-impact exercise like yoga showed large effects, while acupressure and heat showed moderate effects in reducing menstrual pain compared to no treatment.

“For women that don’t get relief from medication, or would like to avoid it, both low-impact exercise or heat are worth trying.”

Low intensity exercise, consisting of yoga and stretching, practiced throughout the month, showed the largest and most consistent positive benefit, with large reductions in pain compared to no treatment and a moderate reduction when compared to ibuprofen, a common over the counter medication used by women for period pain.

Heat therapy, using adhesive heat patches on the lower abdomen, showed a moderate improvement in pain intensity compared to placebo patches, placebo pills or no treatment and a small to moderate improvement compared to ibuprofen.

Acupressure showed the most modest benefit in overall pain, with a moderate effect size below heat and unlike heat and exercise, did not show any superiority over analgesic medication.

Dr Armour says while less effective than exercise, acupressure can be easily learnt and simply applied and therefore is a possible adjunct treatment, especially for situations where heat may not be accessible, such as travelling or at school, and for women who do not wish to engage in exercise.

“We also know that primary dysmenorrhea - period pain - affects 90 per cent of Australian adolescent women and can be the cause of school or work absences, withdrawal from sports and social activities, as well as sleep issues,” said Dr Armour.

“Our previous research and online resource launched last year, Menstruation Matters aimed at reducing the incidence of undiagnosed menstrual disorders and improving the way young women learn about and deal with menstruation.”

“We have found that current research does not address the significant non-specific effects associated with exercise or acupressure interventions and there is a need for future rigorous research designs.

“Future research on a package of care including some, or all, of these self-care interventions would provide a better understanding of the potential effectiveness and resource requirements of these interventions in a community setting,” said Dr Armour.

The paper, The effectiveness of self-care and lifestyle interventions in primary dysmenorrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis is available online: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-019-2433-8(opens in a new window).