Updated: Oct 29, 2020
While nowadays whenever the menstrual cramps kick in, we instinctively reach for an Advil, a heating pad (and maybe a favorite snack – self-care, sweetie) there has been a whole history of women before us who did not have access to the luxuries of melting the pain away in tablet form. While the written history of cramp care really does not exist until the Middle Ages, we can assume our Neanderthal ancestors had their own ways as well.
So going back to medieval times, it was all about a plant-based approach to kicking the cramps. Lemon balm has been cited as an unofficial cure-all for various pains and strains in that era, including menstrual cramps. There are also recorded uses of catnip and caraway as well. By the seventeenth century, mother-wort was becoming a regular on the pain medicine scene as well as being used to stimulate or relax the uterus to aid in childbirth.
Historically, women have used a nice strong brew of ginger root tea or peppermint tea to ease cramps – and, in fact, those two teas are still common go-to's today. Additionally, yarrow would at times be infused into the peppermint tea to increase the painkilling effects.
Hopping ahead to Victorian times, a slightly more medicine-based approach was forming, though reliable and patented medicines were still rather rare. In light of that, Victorian women would often experiment with various treatments, pills, potions, and tonics.
For example, a common treatment was Styptic Balsam, which was a mixture of ingredients that included sulfuric acid and turpentine – definitely not recommend for human consumption. Opium was another common ‘cure’ recommended.
Black haw and black cohosh also gained popularity near the end of the Victorian era. After a study published in the British scientific journal Nature that expounded black haw’s pain-relieving abilities thanks to scopoletin (a chemical compound that was shown to provide menstrual relief), interest in the herb exploded.
Black cohosh, around the same time, was an active ingredient in a popular and newly patented medicine, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was formulated and marketed specifically toward targeting ‘woman problems’ and relieving PMS and menstrual cramping alike.
Looking back on a history of pain-relief evolution, it honestly makes us pretty thankful for being alive during a time when over-the-counter relief is available on almost every corner. But when you sip on your next ginger tea as a supplemental painkiller, think back to our great great great (etc.) grandmothers) who had to rely on that as their only source of relief.