If you’re one of the estimated 80% of women who experience painful periods every month, a condition known as dysmenorrhea, there’s a good chance you’ve tried something, anything, to get some much-needed relief.
The latest product to do so is a drug-free, reusable pain-relieving patch. Simply stick it on, and you’re supposed to be good to go.
It can be tricky to find a solution that actually works. There are heating pads, over-the-counter pain relievers, supplements, nerve stimulators, topical creams, acupressure and acupuncture. Even with these options, an estimated one in five people with chronic period pain say the existing treatments don’t help.
For some, the abdominal aches and pains are mild, but for others, it’s unbearable and can derail their ability to function. Pelvic pain, in particular, can be due to many reasons — endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), uterine fibroids — and, in some cases, it’s a combination of multiple reproductive health issues.
Unfortunately, pain is one of the hardest things to treat in medicine, said Dr. Gabrielle Whitmore, an OB/GYN and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Medical exams and laboratory tests often don’t reveal the cause of someone’s pain, Whitmore explained. As a result, healthcare providers may only have a patient’s personal experiences to go off of, making pain medicine a complex puzzle.
So new treatments continue to pop up on shelves ― and all over social media. It’s exciting when a new pain product comes out, but as with any new technology, it will take time for the science to catch up and reveal how effective and safe it is. Until that happens, here’s what to know about the period patches you might start seeing everywhere.
How The Patch Targets Period Pain
Period patches use nanotechnology, which is said to work by absorbing electrical signals the body produces when it’s in pain.
Nanomedicine is a relatively new technology created as a “drug-free” alternative to conventional medicines, like medication and surgery. These solutions can be incredibly effective but frequently have side effects, such as complications, gastrointestinal problems and tolerance issues.
Dr. Jennifer Hah, a pain medicine specialist at Stanford Health Care, said nanotechnology is a promising area of research as it may deliver drugs to the body without unwanted side effects.
Scientists are still working to pinpoint how, exactly, nanotechnology affects pain because, in truth, it’s not totally clear yet — especially when it’s delivered via a patch. Some believe it absorbs electrical signaling produced by the nerves when someone’s experiencing pain. This, supposedly, interrupts the body’s pain signaling, providing a powerful analgesic effect.
“Clearly, the exact mechanism whereby it works is unclear and complex,” said Dr. Felice Gersh, founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, California, and the author of ”Menopause: 50 Things You Need to Know.”
What Science Says About Nanotechnology
There are a couple of tiny studies on the efficacy and safety of these patches, but there’s not much to go off of evaluating how this technology, in patch form, impacts menstrual cramps.
A report published in 2020 that explored the benefits of the Kailo patch (one of the main companies producing this product) for arthritic, neuropathic or musculoskeletal pain found that 83% of participants experienced pain relief within five minutes of applying the patch. About 15% reported improvements in their pain after the patch was on for 10 minutes. There were no adverse events or skin reactions reported in that study.
A 2023 study that investigated a patch from the brand Signal Relief found that over 90% of participants who used the patch for back, hip, shoulder, knee or neck pain experienced some level of pain relief. Of the group, 75% said they had at least a 30% reduction in their musculoskeletal pain. The median age of those participants was 62, so it’s unclear if and how the patch would work on menstrual pain in reproductive-aged women, Whitmore pointed out.
Because these reports are not randomized controlled trials, a type of study considered the gold standard in scientific research, there’s a real chance the pain relief could be due to a powerful placebo effect.
“It is unclear if the pain relief is more of a placebo effect, which is quite common with pain therapies,” Hah said.
The main takeaway: It’s too soon to know if and how well these patches work on period pain. More studies are needed to investigate the efficacy of these types of patches.
Who Should Try The Period Patch
Whitemore said with any new product, particularly those advertised on social media, it’s important to be cautious. If you’re considering trying out a nanotechnology pain patch, you should check in with your doctor first.
You don’t want to rely on a patch to cope with intense pelvic pain. You could miss a serious underlying condition, such as endometriosis or PCOS, and delay a diagnosis. If pelvic pain is affecting your ability to function or making your life miserable, fill your doctor in, as there are other proven treatments that can help.
It’s also crucial to understand the risks. While there don’t appear to be adverse effects in healthy people, the patches aren’t recommended for pregnant people, children, or individuals with pacemakers or other electrical medical devices. They also shouldn’t be worn during MRIs.
If you’re in good health, there’s likely minimal risk to trying out a patch. And, hey, you may benefit and have your pain ease up. Gersh said it may be worthwhile even though the data is limited.
“There seems to be a real potential for nanotechnology patches to be used in the treatment of dysmenorrhea,” she said.
Whitmore added she’s all about empowering patients who want to try something new but want them to understand that the science may not quite be there yet.
“If you want to try it, sure, try it,” she said, adding, just be cautious and, above all else, keep your doctor in the loop.