Some previous research has linked acupressure – which uses precise finger placements at pressure points throughout the body to relieve pain – with reduced discomfort from menstrual cramps. To see if a smartphone app could help women self-administer acupressure for cramps, researchers randomly assigned 221 women to use the app or to stick with usual care for six months.
By the end of the study, women who used the acupressure app reported significantly less menstrual pain than women who didn’t, the study found.
“Because women with menstrual pain already practice self-management, an app for acupressure can be easily added,” said senior study author Dr. Claudia Witt of the Institute for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
“It is wise to try first non-pharmacological interventions, with a good safety profile, before using a painkiller that can have side effects,” Witt said by email.
The target audience for the app, young women in their 20s and 30s, already use their phones for a variety of different tasks, making it natural for them to consider an app that teaches them how to use pressure points to ease menstrual pain, researchers note in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Witt’s team developed their own app, called AKUD, based on a consensus of acupressure experts from China, Germany and the U.S. For the current study, the researchers offered the app to women ages 18 to 34 in Berlin between 2012 and 2015.
All of the women reported their own pain levels for menstrual cramps on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the worst. At the start of the study, women reported pain of at least 6 on this scale.
Each participant was given an app to use for six months, but only half of the women had an app with an acupressure program. The rest had a “sham” app that didn’t offer any new ways of treating pain from cramps.
By the time women in the study went through their third menstrual cycle, participants using the acupressure app reported average pain scores of 4.4, compared with 5.0 for the other women in the study.
By the sixth menstrual cycle, women with the acupressure app reported pain scores that were typically 1.4 points lower, a large enough gap to represent a clinically meaningful difference.
With acupressure, women were also less likely to use pain medications and reported fewer days with pain during their monthly menstrual cycles, the researchers also found.
One limitation of the study is that most of the participants were highly educated and prone to intense menstrual cramps, which means the results might not represent what would happen for all women experiencing menstrual pain, the authors note.
Even so, the results suggest that an acupressure app may offer some women a good approach to managing menstrual pain, said Caroline Smith, an acupressure researcher at Western Sydney University in Australia who wasn’t involved in the study but who is developing a mass-distribution app for this purpose.
“Adherence suggests the app was acceptable, and the reduction in pain over time was clinically meaningful with few side effects,” Smith said by email. “This app is relevant to women who are looking for evidenced-based self-care options to manage their pain, although as the authors point out further research to address a more generalizable group of women is needed.”