One writer spoke to experts—and tried a new device on her own period-related back pain—to find out how vibrations can help reduce pain.

By Samantha Lefave
Photo: Livia

It comes around like clockwork: As soon as my period hits, pain radiates across my lower back. I've always had my tilted (aka retroverted) uterus to blame-thanks to it being tipped backward instead of forward, I'm more susceptible to symptoms like back pain, urinary tract infections, even fertility problems.

Which is why, for the first few days of my period, the throbbing that spreads across my back is enough to make me want to skip my workouts, crawl into bed with a heating pad, and pray for it to subside. If it gets really bad, I'll pop an ibuprofen for temporary relief. I try to avoid that whenever possible, but sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

So when I heard about Livia, a drug-free, FDA-approved device that works to relieve period pain immediately (as in, faster than it takes for that ibuprofen to kick in), I was more than intrigued. The website says that, when worn and activated, the device "closes the pain gates by stimulating the nerves and blocking the pain from passing to the brain." So, it doesn't get rid of my pain, but it stops me from feeling it?

Despite reading other positive reviews, I was still slightly skeptical about the validity of this portable pain stopper. So I touched base with an independent expert to get her thoughts. I wanted to know whether this thing was safe to use, if it could really work-and if so, how. As soon as I talked to Marina Maslovaric, M.D., ob-gyn and cofounder of HM Medical in Newport Beach, CA, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Basically, Livia is a portable TENS device, and "TENS therapy is a form of neuromodulation via electrical stimulation work," she explains. "It has been around for many decades, and it is used to help with pain management in areas of physical therapy and pain clinics." In other words, it's a portable version of the electric stimulation machines I used to get hooked up to every week when I played collegiate soccer. Back then, I used it to help speed muscle recovery. Now, its main objective was pain relief. (Related: How Much Pelvic Pain Is Normal for Menstrual Cramps?)

As soon as I got Livia in the mail, I charged it up via USB and connected the adhesive nodes to the actual device. When it was fully charged, I placed the nodes right where I was feeling my back pain the most. I then clipped the Livia to the band of my jeans and pressed the device button to the level of intensity I wanted (for me, three button pushes was good). Immediately, I felt vibration against my back. Within a few minutes, the pain started to subside.

Stoked, I asked Dr. Maslovaric exactly what was happening. "The way TENS therapy works is by transmitting electric currents through the tissues via skin electrodes, and this then stimulates sensations in the nerves," she says. "Once nerves perceive the electrical stimulus, it distracts the nerve and temporarily disrupts the pain pathway." In other words, as soon as my nerves had something else to focus on, the pain went away.

Abigail Bales, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Reform PT in New York City, says that the low-level stimulation could also be causing my brain to release natural painkillers (endorphins and enkephalins, specifically) to help me find relief. Studies have shown an increase in these chemicals after the use of electrical stimulation, so it's a likely scenario-meaning the TENS therapy may have pulled double duty on mitigating my period pain.

I let Livia vibrate away for 20 minutes-that's the standard recommended length, says Bales-and looked for signs of skin irritation, as the nodes can be uncomfortable to wear in the same spot for a prolonged time. (It's recommended that you move the nodes to a new spot every 24 hours, says Dr. Maslovaric.) All good. And because the device was so small and easily hidden under my clothes, I simply let it sit there while I worked away at my computer, turning it off and on whenever I needed another hit of relief.

The best part is that, even on the first two days of my period-typically the worst for me in terms of pain management-I only had to use Livia three times each day. The effects lasted for hours, and while it didn't completely eliminate my back pain, it dulled it to a low enough level that it wasn't noticeable.

And while I was initially concerned about using it too often, both Bales and Dr. Maslovaric say it's not dangerous. "Most TENS units that are not medical-grade have pre-set settings, preventing users from changing frequency, wave length, or duration to a dangerous setting," says Bales. That said, "as with any analgesic (pain reliever), your body can absolutely become used to the effect, requiring more intense settings for longer durations in order for you to feel the same relief. The frequency depends on your symptoms and purpose, but you should check with your doctor or physical therapist if you find you are no longer responding to the treatment."

Overall, I'm happy to report that I've found a suitable alternative to managing period pain-one that's drug-free, customizable, and immediately impactful. Other natural pain relievers can help too-Bales suggests yoga, epsom salt baths, and acupuncture, while Dr. Maslovaric recommends heating pads and herbal teas. So for those who don't want to pop pills, there is another way.


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