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Conditions

Dysmenorrhea

Pain associated with menstruation is called dysmenorrhea. More than half of women who menstruate have some pain for 1 to 2 days each month. Usually, the pain is mild. But for some women, the pain is so severe that it keeps them from doing their normal activities for several days a month.

Definition

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for painful menstrual periods which are caused by uterine contractions. Primary dysmenorrhea refers to recurrent pain, while secondary dysmenorrhea results from reproductive system disorders. Both can be treated.

Types of Dysmenorrhea

There are two types of dysmenorrhea, primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea is the cramping pain that comes before or during a period. This pain is caused by natural chemicals called prostaglandins that are made in the lining of the uterus. Prostaglandins cause the muscles and blood vessels of the uterus to contract. This occurs when you first start your period and continues throughout your life. It is usually life-long. It can cause severe and frequent menstrual cramping from severe and abnormal uterine contractions.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by a disorder in the reproductive organs. The pain tends to get worse over time and it often lasts longer than normal menstrual cramps. For example, the pain may begin a few days before a period starts. The pain may get worse as the period continues and may not go away after it ends.

Symptoms of menstrual cramps include:

 

  • Throbbing or cramping pain in your lower abdomen that can be intense
  • Pain that starts 1 to 3 days before your period, peaks 24 hours after the onset of your period and subsides in 2 to 3 days
  • Dull, continuous ache
  • Pain that radiates to your lower back and thighs
  • Nausea
  • Loose stools
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

Dysmenorrhea
Treatments

To ease the pain associated with menstrual cramps, your doctor may recommend:
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Pain Medicine

Medications are usually the first step when treating painful periods. Certain pain relievers, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), target prostaglandins and lessen their effects. This in turn makes menstrual cramps less severe. Most NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can be bought over the counter. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), at regular doses starting the day before you expect your period to begin can help control the pain of cramps. Prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs also are available.
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Hormonal Birth Control

Birth control methods that contain estrogen and progestin, such as the pill, the patch, and the vaginal ring, can be used to treat painful periods. Oral birth control pills contain hormones that prevent ovulation and reduce the severity of menstrual cramps. Birth control methods that contain progestin only, which can be delivered in several forms, such as the birth control implant and the injection, also may reduce period pain.
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Surgery

If your menstrual cramps are caused by a disorder such as endometriosis or fibroids, surgery to correct the problem might help your symptoms. Surgical removal of the uterus also might be an option if other approaches fail to ease your symptoms and if you’re not planning to have children.

Additional Resources

Learn more from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists