Many women's periods are accompanied by painful cramps that range from mild to moderate to severe. Luckily there are plenty of over-the-counter pain relievers on the shelf of every supermarket and drugstore, all of which promise to treat everything from fevers to backaches to period cramps. But while it's tempting to grab the first one you spot, doctors say not all OTC pain relievers are created equal when it comes to easing that miserable menstrual pain.
First, let's back up a minute to discuss the cause of period cramps. "The endometrium (tissue that lines the uterus) produces chemicals known as prostaglandins," Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, a board-certified ob-gyn, told POPSUGAR. "These substances cause the uterine muscle to contract and expel the uterine lining each month during menstruation, [which causes] the cramps that women feel." Additionally, these prostaglandins can cause the stomach upset associated with menses. (Aren't periods fun?)
Because this is the cause, the consensus among doctors is that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are the most effective way to combat period cramps. "NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, are helpful during this time because ibuprofen is what we call a nonselective inhibitor of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX)," explained ob-gyn Natasha Chinn, MD, FACOG. In layman's terms, this means that it blocks the enzyme COX, which is needed to form prostaglandins. "Therefore, blocking COX decreases the levels of prostaglandins in the body," Dr. Chinn said.
Dr. Gaither agreed, noting that NSAIDs act to block the production of these prostaglandins and effectively decrease the pain of uterine contractions. So did William F. Lee, MD, FACOG, who told POPSUGAR that NSAIDs are the first line treatment for dysmenorrhea, and while "there are a few different types of NSAIDS, all have been shown to inhibit prostaglandin synthesis."
So there you have it — when it's time to take an OTC pain reliever for your period cramps, make sure it's an NSAID. There are plenty to choose from: the brands to look for on the shelf include aspirin, Motrin, Advil, and Aleve.