Now there's Livia, a medical device that's being marketed as the "off switch for menstrual pain."
Here's how it works: Users simply attach two electrodes to the areas on their abdomen that hurt and switch on the colorful, palm-size gadget. According to Livia's makers, the device immediately sends nerve-stimulating electric pulses through the two electrodes, and poof! — the pain is gone.
Livia has received rave reviews in international women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour, and more than 3,000 crowdfunders from around the world have put upward of $284,000 into Livia's Indiegogo campaign. For now, it's only possible to preorder the device (at a cost of $85) and wait six months for it to ship.
As far as gadgetry for women's health goes, this one is novel. But does Livia actually work? There's no good way to evaluate that right now, since Livia's makers haven't made the findings of their studies on the device's effects public.
But there's some reason for optimism: The device is basically a repackaging of another (cheaper) technology that has already been proven to help women who suffer with their monthly cycles.
Livia is essentially TENS 2.0
To learn more about Livia, I reached out to Chen Nachum, the company's founder and CEO. He explained that the key to the device is TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), those electronic nerve stimulators you've probably seen in strip malls that hook up to the body to treat neck or back pain. (They're also available on the internet's strip mall, Amazon.)
TENS devices are generally thought to work through the "pain-gate theory" of pain. "The idea is the nerve system cannot work with two types of signals at the same time," Nachum explained, "so what Livia does is transmit frequency to the nerve system that it is very similar to the body's frequency, but it's not something the body knows."
When the frequency from the device hits the brain faster than the pain, the brain takes that signal first and is distracted from the menstrual aches, the company claims.
So far, Nachum said they have tested the device on 163 women in two different trials — and more than 80 percent experienced relief with the device. The company is currently working on another study, which will include about 60 women.
Based on these studies, Nachum is trying to get Food and Drug Administration approval to market Livia as a menstrual pain reliever.
Doctors already prescribe TENS for period pain
Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN and pain medicine specialist, noted that the idea of using TENS for menstrual pain is actually very sound. In fact, there's enough research that the Cochrane Collaboration was able to put together a review of the evidence. Its conclusion: "High-frequency nerve stimulation may help relieve painful menstrual cramps."
In an email, Gunter said she frequently prescribes high-frequency TENS (pulses between 50 and 120 hertz at a low intensity) to treat patients who suffer through their periods: "I have done so for more than 15 years. Prescribed one this morning in fact." They really help some women, she added.
The benefit here is that, unlike anti-inflammatories and oral contraceptives, TENS is a non-drug intervention, and according to the Cochrane Review, there's research that suggests women even take fewer pain relievers when using these devices.
Gunter's main question about Livia is whether it will be significantly different from the already available and effective TENS devices, which usually cost around $35. "Nothing [the CEO] has disclosed makes Livia sound like anything other than a TENS unit," she wrote. "So I guess it's an expensive, pink TENS unit?"
(The company says the device would retail at $149, about the cost of four TENS units. But this assumes Livia will take off enough to justify retailing.)
Gunter also wondered whether Livia will be high frequency enough to be helpful. As that Cochrane review found, low-frequency TENS don't seem to do much to cut pain for women.
When I asked Nachum about the device's frequency, he said, "We can't share this information at this point."
And while he claims that Livia is more effective at treating period pain than the cheaper, already available TENS units (he said "its frequency and wave shape are unique and optimized especially for relieving menstrual pain"), without publicly available studies comparing the two, all we have to go on is his word. (The Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wouldn't comment on Livia because no studies on it have been published.)
For now, Gunter pointed out, the TENS units that are already available can help women — and raising awareness about that might be Livia's biggest benefit.
"If [Livia] gets more women to know about TENS, then great," she said. "[B]ut to call it something new or different seems disingenuous, unless of course they have published ... data that says otherwise."