Menstrual cramps are pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen just before or during a menstrual period. Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for menstrual cramps.
Dysmenorrhea can be either primary or secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea usually starts 1 to 2 years after your first period, but it may start earlier. Secondary dysmenorrhea results from a specific disease or disorder.
Secondary dysmenorrhea tends to be caused by the following:
Other symptoms of dysmenorrhea include:
About 10 to 15 percent of women with menstruation cramps have symptoms severe enough to interfere with their normal activities.
To diagnose dysmenorrhea your healthcare provider may ask the following questions:
Your healthcare provider may do a physical exam and pelvic exam. You may have blood tests and cultures. You may need an ultrasound scan of your pelvis to check your uterus and ovaries.
Menstrual cramps are often relieved by nonprescription pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, or ibuprofen (an anti-inflammatory).
Your physician may prescribe birth control pills for treatment of dysmenorrhea. They decrease cramping by decreasing prostaglandin production. If the pills relieve the pain, you may take them even if you do not need them for birth control. This option must be discussed with your healthcare provider.
In primary dysmenorrhea the pain begins shortly before or at the start of a period and usually lasts 1 to 3 days. In secondary dysmenorrhea the pain may begin several days before and last throughout your period.
Menstrual cramps are common during the late teens and early 20’s. They often get better after age 25 and are less common after childbirth. Even though the cramps are painful, they will not hurt the uterus or your ability to have children.
Having your period does not mean that you are sick. In most cases it should not stop you from doing most of the things you normally do. Charting the length and frequency of your periods will help you to understand better what is normal for you. See your healthcare provider if there are any sudden changes in your normal periods, such as much heavier or lighter flow, a much shorter or longer time between periods, or any unusual pain or clotting.
In addition, you can:
See your healthcare provider right away if the pain is severe.