Can a massage cure the worst of your period symptoms? In the clutches of mood swings and weird cravings, I decided to find out.
It's 5:32 p.m., and I'm late. Not that kind of late—I'm expecting my period in a few days. But ironically, that's exactly why I'm a bit out of sorts as I weave down this crowded Brooklyn sidewalk, sweating, toting a heavy bag, emotions teetering from psychotic laughter to weary despair to insatiable hunger—Do brownies filled with French fries exist?—looking for a massage parlor. I'm PMSing, and I'm about to get a period massage.
If you're like me, the first time you hear the phrase "period massage," a lightbulb goes on. A massage catered specifically to women at the height of their worst period symptoms just makes sense. Do a bit of googling, and you'll come to find that massage to ease the cramps, bloating, physical fatigue, and mental exhaustion associated with PMS is far from a new concept. (These yoga poses to relieve PMS and menstrual cramps can help, too.)
So, why haven't I heard about period massage before?
As a woman who has suffered through debilitating cramps during meetings rather than take a sick day, this, unfortunately, isn't all that surprising. We don't talk about our periods, let alone admit they impact our ability to function. There are enough hurdles for women to jump over—what's one more painful (albeit natural) barrier, right?
Your resilience is honorable. But the idea that periods and everything that comes with them should be kept secret or considered shameful is a concept that Rachel Beider is trying to break. She's the owner of Massage Greenpoint and Massage Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY, where she developed a 60- to 90-minute massage—aptly named the Moon Cycle Massage. It relieves the physical and mental stress of that time of the month. "It's about doing something kind for yourself during a time you're used to suffering through in silence," she says.
Several rushed blocks later, I arrive at Massage Greenpoint, wipe the sweat off my upper lip, and try to embody the Zen I'm hoping to find here. I'm greeted by soft music and incense. My massage therapist and a perky receptionist are waiting for me. As I start to ramble my apologies for being late, I can feel the stress emanating from my body. It's such an easy choice for me; welcoming anxiety over calm. They don't seem to notice as they tell me to sit and relax. I fill out the usual form about my medical history, pressure preferences, and other important details to help my masseuse get to know me, and I notice one unique question: Are you on your period?
My therapist leads me into a room with soft lighting and a table lined with blankets. Beider recommends women come in at the height of their period symptoms or when they need relief the most. For me, the days leading up to my period are some of the most tumultuous. While not in the throes of physical pain, I start to experience cramps, my boobs feel like they've gone 10 rounds with a professional boxer, and my emotions run wild—symptoms that often get more intense with age (yay!).
It's this flare of emotions that makes me feel particularly vulnerable as I openly discuss the details of my period with this person I just met. But she's very professional and comforting as she asks me where I am in my cycle, if there's anywhere I prefer not to be touched, and where I feel the most pain. After she dismisses herself so I can disrobe—the part I was dreading the most, considering my bloated and sweaty state—I crawl under the blanket and settle facedown on the massage table.
The session is totally customizable. While massaging the abdomen (a therapy technique said to soothe cramps) is an option, I ask my therapist to skip those tender muscles in favor of working through pain in my neck and back, with a heavy focus on the sacrum, a section of the lower back often connected to menstrual pain. After applying a heating pad to my lower back, my therapist slowly begins working through the damage.
About 20 minutes in, she rubs rose geranium oil, which is associated with cramp relief, in her hands and places them under my nose. I inhale a few breaths and feel my mind start to quiet for the first time since arriving. Intermittently throughout the session, she works through a series of pressure points around my ankles, referred to as "spleen 6." Targeting this area has shown to have pelvic- and menstrual-pain busting powers. I think about how odd it is to feel pressure on your leg trigger something in your gut.
A discreet lift-and-flip later, I'm lying on my back with the heating pad now on my lower abdomen. My therapist works through the pain in my neck and head before ending our hour by holding a few pressure points while I'm told to go completely limp. For the first several minutes, I struggle to completely let go. I can't figure out how to relax my muscles and allow her to hold the weight of my head. My internal dialogue is telling me that it's rude to let someone carry your weight.
Boom. I get a sort of epiphany.
Ashley, I say to myself. Your stress comes from constantly needing to carry the world on your shoulders—which, my goodness, what did you do to your shoulders? Even on a massage table you're incapable of letting anyone help you. Let go, silly.
And so, I finally oblige and let my head hang in her hands. The mental chatter vanishes, the alien in my gut goes away, and I'm at peace, floating in a world without periods.
A few days later, Aunt Flo makes her arrival. I can't say I expected a massage to completely erase my period symptoms—that would be a damn miracle—but the sensations I'm getting feel less angry. Instead of kicking down my door with a headache and crippling stomach pain, the cramps emerge slowly, giving me a warning that they are coming. It's enough for me to pop a few ibuprofen and ward off the worst of the pain, something I'm rarely able to get ahead of. One of my more inconvenient symptoms (TMI alert) has vanished entirely—my bathroom habits are blissfully regular and untormented. I ride out the week with fewer doses of pain medicine, which in turn leaves my stomach in better shape, a gift that allows me to eat without nausea or additional restroom visits. Being able to efficiently manage my pain also leads to clearer thoughts and better sleep—all things that increase my mental clarity. I'm not Buddha, but I feel more me and it's a small victory I'll gladly take.