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A person in pajamas is clutching a hot water bottle and sitting near some pills and glasses of water
Photo: Kaspars Grinvalds (Shutterstock)

I’ve long known that NSAIDs like ibuprofen are supposed to be able to counteract period cramps, but they never seemed to work for me. It turns out I was using them wrong—they work best if you take them before the cramps ramp up.

“We tell people to start taking ibuprofen or naproxen the day before you think you’re getting your period,” says Heather Giambo, a pediatric emergency physician in New York City. (Not everybody’s cycle is regular enough to predict their period to the day, but if yours is, you’re in luck.)

Both ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) help because they block the formation of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins tell your uterus to contract, which is part of the process of expelling menstrual blood—but strong contractions can be painful, and that’s what’s causing your cramps.

The idea, then, is to rein in the prostaglandin production before it gets out of control. That means the sooner you take these painkillers, the more effective they are. Wait too long and you’re out of luck until next month: “Once you have the prostaglandin, it’s already there,” says Giambo. So it turns out that my previous habit of waiting to see how bad the cramps would get, and only then deciding if I wanted to take the Motrin, wasn’t the best strategy.

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Giambo also notes that people with certain medical conditions, like a history of stomach bleeding, shouldn’t take these drugs, so check with your doctor if you haven’t used them before.

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