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Dysmenorrhea (Cramps)

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The medical name for painful periods or menstrual cramps is dysmenorrhea. You are not alone. Half of the menstruating women in the United States report having cramps. Not surprisingly, dysmenorrhea is one of the most common causes of lost school and work hours in the United States.


Pain usually peaks on the first or second day of flow. Women with dysmenorrhea may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Back and leg pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Headaches
  • Tension
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

What causes dysmenorrhea?

Depending on what causes the pain, dysmenorrhea can be “primary” or “secondary”.

Primary dysmenorrhea – This is the most common type of cramps. There does not appear to be any physical problems in these normal healthy women. Studies show that the cause of menstrual pain for these women usually comes from prostaglandins – chemicals produced in the body.

Prostaglandins influence “smooth” or nonvoluntary muscle activity. Research links high levels of a certain prostaglandin to increased contractions of the uterus (the cause of cramping). Prostaglandins may also play a part in constricting blood vessels and activating the large intestine, thus explaining the headaches, dizziness, hot and cold flashes, diarrhea and nausea that can accompany a period.

At one time women were told that menstrual pain was “all in their heads”, no longer. Finding the link between prostaglandins and dysmenorrhea has allowed millions of women to seek relief with medications. (See Treatment).

Secondary dysmenorrhea – Women who suffer from this less common type of cramps have a physical problem or disease which causes their pain.

Some health problems that can trigger secondary dysmenorrhea include:

  • Endometriosis
  • Fibroids
  • Cancer
  • Polyps
  • Malformed pelvic organs
  • Other gynecological problems

These problems are usually easily diagnosed and can often be treated with medication or surgery.

Treatment: The Good News

You don’t have to suffer anymore! If your cramps are caused by prostaglandin activity, over- the-counter ibuprofen may help your pain. If ibuprofen does not relieve your cramps, your doctor may suggest you use a prescription strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or naproxen.

Some women should not take NSAIDs. Talk to your health care provider about precautions and possible side effects of your medication.

Other Tips:

You might want to try these other tips for reducing menstrual pain:

  1. Apply a heating pad.
  2. Exercise regularly – a consistent regimen of swimming, jogging, etc., can reduce cramps.
  3. Reduce stress – stress can aggravate cramps. Try yoga or other relaxation techniques.
  4. Try drinking chamomile tea.
  5. Keep your bladder empty – urinate every 2 hours whether you feel the need or not. The pressure of the bladder against the uterus can increase cramping.

Remember: If these other tips don’t work for you, don’t “grin and bear it”. Talk to your health care provider.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.

Reviewed: 07/2008

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