A majority of women in their childbearing years are all too familiar with the monthly onslaught of menstrual cramps. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can guide practitioners in helping their clients who suffer from this type of pain. By stimulating certain points on the body and the ear, bodyworkers can provide an alternative to the liver and stomach damaging drugs traditionally used to treat dysmenorrhea.
Menstrual cramps are either classified as primary dysmenorrhea or secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea involves no physical abnormality and usually begins six months to a year after menstruation begins. Secondary dysmenorrhea involves an underlying physical cause, such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids. Signs and symptoms of dysmenorrhea typically include:
- Dull or throbbing pain in the lower abdomen
- Pain that radiates to the lower back and thighs
- Easing the pain of secondary dysmenorrhea requires treatment for the underlying cause. Possible treatments might include antibiotics for infection, surgery to remove fibroids or polyps, or hormone therapy to treat endometriosis. Easing the pain of primary dysmenorrhea often includes:
- Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Low-dose oral contraceptives for severe cramping (only when prescribed by a physician)
Note: If your client proclaims that her menstrual cramps have recently changed and are now much more severe than before, refer her to a gynecologist.
TCM for Cramps
Upon confirming your client has primary dysmenorrhea, a practitioner must discern if the imbalance is excessive or deficient. In general, this difference can be determined by:
- Qi and Blood Stagnation – This excessive condition is evidenced by cramps that occur prior to or during menstruation. Symptoms for qi stagnation include more distention than pain, bloating, breast tenderness, stuffy chest, belching, irritability and a short temper. Symptoms for blood stagnation include more pain than distention, stabbing pain, abdominal pain worsened by pressure and passing of blood clots. Good acupressure points for either pattern are Liver 3, Gallbladder 34, Urinary Bladder 32, Spleen 8 and Spleen 6.
- Blood Deficiency – This deficient condition is characterized by dull cramping following menstruation. Symptoms for blood deficient cramps are a reduction of the pain with pressure, fatigue, dizziness, palpitations and scanty menses. Blood deficiency is common following childbirth. Good acupressure points for this imbalance are Urinary Bladder 18, Urinary Bladder 20, Urinary Bladder 23, Liver 8, Spleen 6 and Spleen 10.
According to TCM, there are a variety of microsystems that can be used to diagnose and treat the entire body. Ideal for bodyworkers, one of the most commonly used microsystems is located on the outer ear. Known as auricular acupressure, exact point location here is crucial because of the small size and near proximity of points.
Since the diameter of acupoints on the ear are literally the size of a pinhead, applying ear seeds is one of the most effective applications for point stimulation. Purchased from an oriental medical supplier, small seeds or metal beads are held in place with adhesive tape, similar to a small bandage. Clients retain them for several days and are instructed to press on the beads periodically to stimulate the point.
A study published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine investigated the effects of auricular acupressure for relieving primary dysmenorrhea. In this Taiwanese study, ear seeds were placed on the following three points:
The researchers found that participants with primary dysmenorrhea who were wearing and stimulating their ear seeds experienced substantial menstrual pain relief. Thus, auricular acupressure was determined to be a noninvasive complementary therapy for women with primary dysmenorrhea.
Auricular Tips for Bodyworkers
Before purchasing and using ear seeds on your clients, consider these guidelines:
- Confirm that using ear seeds is within your local and state massage therapy licensing laws.
- Only use ear seeds contained in sterile packaging.
- Make certain you know the locations of the points you want to use. Find an auricular acupressure chart and practice finding the liver, kidney and endocrine points on differently shaped ears first.
- Before adhering the seeds, make sure the ear is cleaned well. Individually packaged alcohol pads are ideal for this purpose.
- Instruct clients to apply pressure three times a day, and to remove the seed if it is irritating.
- Clearly advise your client to remove the seed within five days of its placement; otherwise it can bore into the skin and invite infection.
For relieving menstrual cramps, traditional and auricular acupressure are ideal supplements to massage therapy. After differentiating between an excessive or deficient imbalance and establishing your comfort using ear seeds, bodyworkers may find success in helping their clients overcome primary dysmenorrhea.