Why A New Gadget Misses The Mark ‘Switching Off’ Menstrual Cramps

by Lana Friesen
LiviaLivia has been sweeping menstruators off their feet with its wearable tech that alleviates menstrual cramps. A simple TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) machine that is portable, unobtrusive, and even chic, and can be worn at the waist with the pads placed over the ovaries, Livia boasts a compact wearability that allows menstruators to continue their daily lives without succumbing to debilitating period cramps.

Huffington Post Women UK called it a “genius invention [that] could provide an ‘off-switch’ for cramps,” Bustle calls it the device that can “save you from your uterus.” And while I have no doubt that it’s effective in treating the symptoms, it’s completely missing the mark when it comes to addressing the underlying cause.

The language of “saving you from your uterus” and providing an “off switch” for cramps propagates the notion that menstruators have bodies that are problematic, painful, and less-than the male counterpart, which is assumed to be free of pain when healthy. The reality is, a healthy female body should also be free of pain, at all times of the cycle, and band-aid solutions aren’t going to help you determine the underlying cause.

I recently felt completely blindsided by the most intense menstrual cramps I’ve had in a long time.

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They were actually so painful I became nauseous from the pain and threw up. And while I did use a hot water bottle to cope with the pain, pain alleviation is not my sole concern, nor is it the end of my pursuit for answers.

If I had the Livia device, I’m sure I would have used it to help me with the pain. I think it’s probably effective in that goal; however, I think we must hesitate before calling it an “off-switch” for period cramps.

We must ask ourselves, why are these cramps happening?

“Because female anatomy!” is not the answer. Contrary to popular belief, period cramps are NOT a necessary component of a typically healthy period. They are a sign that something within your system is not quite right. It’s such a widespread belief that cramps are to be expected as part of our typical experience that when friends were recommending ways to alleviate the pain I was experiencing, and I was replying with my thoughts on the underlying cause, the response was “I thought you just had cramps”. But cramps don’t have to be the benchmark of every single menstruation.

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In Buzzfeed’s review of Livia, a menstruator reflects on her experience using the Livia:

“It also just made me realize all the things women have to go through and deal with…”

But menstruators don’t have to go through cramps. There are lots of reasons why they might be happening. I don’t argue against using Livia to address period pain (heaven knows I wish I had one Day 1 and Day 2 of my current cycle), I just argue against the idea that it’s the end of the story, and no further investigation needs to be done.

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In my story, I am fairly certain I have a retroverted uterus which causes low-back pain before and during the period. I believe it was particularly bad this time because of an intense hike I did just before my period was due to start, which put my pelvis under all sorts of stress.

Think about it: your uterus typically weighs 4 ounces when you’re not menstruating, and 8-10 ounces when you are! That’s a much bigger and heavier organ that is suddenly exacerbating any issues that may go otherwise unnoticed.

uterus-size

The uterus when you’re menstruating (right) and when you’re not (left). Photo via Apples and Ovaries

There are numerous reasons why I don’t want to settle for pain alleviation (addressing symptoms) without addressing the underlying cause. One poignant reason for me is that I want to have kids some day in the future, and when that happens, I want my pelvic health to be in a state where I can have a smooth sailing pregnancy and labour – as much as I can prepare it to be, anyway. If I have a retroverted uterus, it can be harder to get pregnant in the first place, and cause major pain during the pregnancy as the uterus shifts forward, tearing the adhesions it has made to the rectum.

uterus-position

Even if you’re not interested in having children, isn’t it better to address an underlying cause and prevent the pain from happening in the first place? You don’t have to be out of commission while camping because your Livia isn’t charged or you didn’t pack your hot water bottle. You don’t have to take painkillers regularly which compromise your cardiovascular and intestinal health in the long-term. Katy Bowman drives home the point that taking pills to address period pain is simply not a sustainable solution. And Livia is another bandaid solution (without the adverse side effects on your cardiovascular and intestinal health, happily).

uterus-posture

Image via Alignment Monkey; the left picture is what we want to aim for.

My solution for my period pain: As soon as I can get my pelvis down to Portland to see Barbara Loomis, an abdominal massage, Restorative Exercise™ and natural movement for reproductive, digestive & pelvic floor health practitioner to verify the position of my uterus, I will. In the meantime, I’m doing this exercise for retroverted uteruses, rolling my thighs with a foam roller to lessen the tension of the fascia in my thighs, and yoga for the lower back. I am also attempting to correcting my sitting habits.

Other possible solutions: Some menstruators have found that stopping caffeine for a few days prior to their cycle (and during) has made a significant impact on their menstrual experience; eliminating period pain so they no longer need to rely on Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Advil. Some menstruators found that vaginal steaming three times in the week before their menstruation helped prevent cramps from happening in the first place.

Bottom line: it’s not that Livia is wrong. It’s that it’s not the end of the story. It’s a useful aid while you take your menstrual health into your own hands and start searching for your answer. Your healing journey really starts unfolding once you have your answer and a solution that will address the cause of the cramps in the first place.

Lana Friesen is founder of the Blood Cycle Conference. During Lana’s studies at Simon Fraser University, she started her own company which involved teaching dance throughout the Lower Mainland and producing shows of varying sizes. Lana’s professional interests shifted from theatre arts to a focus on health and wellness, and after a diagnosis of PCOS she became interested in healing herself and sharing the resources she’s discovered with as many others as possible!

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