As anyone who has ever experienced period pain knows it’s a multifaceted experience dependent on many factors: family history, environment, time of year, general mental well-being, and age (to name just a few). This makes treating period pain, or dysmenorrhea (as its formally called) an equally complex endeavour. There are many people who don’t respond to, or are uncomfortable taking, commonly prescribed treatments such as oral contraceptives or over-the-counter analgesics. Other frequently suggested options, such as the use of a heating pad/cold pack or staying in bed for the day, aren’t realistic options if you need to be at work, are a single parent, or do any other activity that requires your immediate time and energy. While there haven’t been any official studies done on cannabis and relief from the symptoms of dysmenorrhea, there is a growing body of individuals who swear by the soothing effects of this newly legalized in Canada option.
Before looking at cannabis and dysmenorrhea, it’s worth highlighting how common period pain actually is across the general population. On average, at least 80 percent of menstruating young people report experiencing dysmenorrhea and 20 percent report having such severe cramping it has a negative impact on their daily lives. Although older individuals are less likely to experience dysmenorrhea it is still widely reported, with statistics suggesting anywhere between 15 and 75 percent of menstruating individuals experiencing pain (the percentages vary based on the specific groups being studied).
Period cramping occurs when the body releases prostaglandins, a hormone which causes the uterine lining to shed and contract—often painfully. Prostaglandins are also responsible for nausea, GI issues, low mood, and inflammation (which is why anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics can be so effective). For some people, cannabis seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect that not only reduces pain but may also have the potential to lower the need for OTC analgesics. The official position of the Canadian Medical Association is this:
While the CMA recognizes that some individuals suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease may obtain relief with cannabis, there remains a need for clinical research, regulatory reviews and guidance for the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Regulatory reviews are designed to protect patients and to provide critical information to physicians, such as clinical indications, dosages, and potential interactions with medications.
While this position is definitely on the conservative side, it’s still important to talk to your doctor or OBGYN if you use cannabis as a form of pain relief for period cramps. Many physicians recognize the potential benefits of using cannabis over traditional methods and will, in fact, ask you questions about the type of pain relief you’re experiencing for their own notes and research. Because the relationship between cannabis and PMS or being on your period isn’t fully understood and is such a complex area of study, even anecdotes can be helpful for medical professionals if or when they decide to prescribe it to patients.
If you’re planning on using cannabis to relieve cramping, nausea, and other symptoms of dysmenorrhea it’s important to be a savvy shopper. The fact that CBD oil is now in everything, from sparkling water to junk food, is indicative of how quickly cannabis has become “A Thing” amongst food marketers and companies wanting to jump in while the trend is hot. With edibles, extracts, and topicals entering the legal cannabis arena no later than October 17, 2019 in Canada, there is still very little legislation around dosages and packaging on these products.
One cannabis product that doctors are warning against are THC-containing vaginal suppositories. Because the vagina’s natural flora is so perfectly balanced, gynecologists are concerned about the use of THC suppositories, especially when there is no data to show the long-term effects cannabis could potentially have on the vagina’s natural ecosystem.
At the end of the day, any decision to use (or not use) cannabis as a means to alleviate PMS and period pain is your own. If cannabis works for you then it can be a powerful tool, a trusty weapon against inevitable cramping and nausea. If you have a medical professional that knows about your ongoing dysmenorrhea, whether that’s a GP, OBGYN, nurse, or nurse practitioner, try to keep an open dialogue about using cannabis for pain relief. And finally, be a smart shopper and do your research before trying new cannabis products—at best you’ll save some money and at worst you’ll prevent accidental harm to your reproductive system.
Ashley Linkletter is a mental health, food, and nutrition writer based in Vancouver, BC.