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Research Medical Center
ER of Brookside

Painful Menstrual Periods


Painful menstrual periods, also called dysmenorrhea, may include pain in the pelvis, abdomen, back, or legs, abdominal cramps, headache, and fatigue. Most women have painful periods at some time in their lives. In some women, the pain is severe enough to interfere with normal activities.

There are 2 types of dysmenorrhea:

  • Primary—painful regular menstrual cycles caused by uterine muscle contractions
  • Secondary—painful periods due to an underlying condition, such as endometriosis
Menstrual Flow
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Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by high levels of prostaglandins in the uterus. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances normally found throughout the body.

Secondary dysmenorrhea can be caused by:

Risk Factors

Painful menstrual periods are more common in women under age 30 years. Other factors that may increase your risk of having painful menstrual periods include:

  • Low body weight, especially during adolescence
  • Smoking
  • Early onset of menstruation—younger than 12 years old
  • Longer menstrual cycles
  • Heavy bleeding during periods
  • Never having delivered a baby
  • Psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety

You are also at risk if you have a related condition, such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts.


The pain associated with either primary or secondary dysmenorrhea may be sharp and throbbing, or dull and aching. It is most typically located in the lower abdomen and may spread to the low back or thighs. Other symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Irritability

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if you have:

  • Severe or unusual cramps
  • Cramps that last for more than a few days
  • Signs of infection, such as fever or chills
  • Cramps with heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Abdominal or pelvic tenderness
  • Vaginal discharge other than menstrual bleeding

Also, call you doctor if you are having vaginal bleeding or pain and are unsure if it is related to menstruation.


You will be asked detailed questions about your symptoms and medical history. A pelvic exam will be done.

Specific tests can evaluate your pelvic organs and surrounding structures. Tests may include:


Primary dysmenorrhea is usually treated with medications and lifestyle changes.

The treatment of secondary dysmenorrhea varies depending on the underlying condition.


Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually the first-line treatment for menstrual pain. Examples of these medications include ibuprofen and naproxen.

Birth control pills may be prescribed in some cases.

Other Treatments

Other ways to ease discomfort include:

Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs and supplements. They may interact with your other medications and conditions.


To help reduce your chance of painful menstrual periods:

  • Exercise regularly
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can quit
  • Drink only moderate amounts of caffeine and alcohol

Revision Information

  • American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

  • Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

  • Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada

  • Women's Health Matters

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  • Dysmenorrhea. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: Updated July 13, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • Dysmenorrhea. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated October 5, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • Menstrual cycle problems. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • Dysmenorrhea: symptoms. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: Updated April 2014. Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • French L. Dysmenorrhea. Am Fam Physician. 2005;71:285-291. Available at: Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated July 1, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2015.

  • 9/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Witt CM, Reinhold T, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture in patients with dysmenorrhea: a randomized study on clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness in usual care. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008;198:166.e1-8.

  • 4/15/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Osayande AS, Mehulic S. Diagnosis and initial management of dysmenorrhea. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(5):341-346.

  • 6/18/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Kannan P, Claydon LS. Some physiotherapy treatments may relieve menstrual pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea: a systematic review. J Physiother. 2014;60(1):13-21.