Classification and external resources
Specialty Gynecology
ICD-10 N94.4-N94.6
ICD-9-CM 625.3
DiseasesDB 10634
MedlinePlus 003150
eMedicine article/253812
Patient UK Dysmenorrhea
MeSH D004412

Dysmenorrhea, also known as dysmenorrhoea, painful periods, or menstrual cramps, is pain during menstruation.[1][2] It usually begins around the time that menstruation begins. Symptoms typically last less than three days. The pain is usually in the pelvis or lower abdomen. Other symptoms may include back pain, diarrhea, or nausea.[1]

In young women painful periods often occur without an underlying problem. In older women it is more often due to an underlying issues such as uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, or endometriosis.[3] It is more common among those with heavy periods, irregular periods, whose periods started before twelve years of age, or who have a low body weight.[1] A pelvic exam in those who are sexually active and ultrasound may be useful to help in diagnosis.[1] Conditions that should be ruled out include ectopic pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, interstitial cystitis, and chronic pelvic pain.[1]

Dysmenorrhea occurs less often in those who exercise regularly and those who have children early in life.[1] Treatment may include the use of a heating pad.[3] Medications that may help include NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, hormonal birth control, and the IUD with progestogen.[1][3] Taking vitamin B or magnesium may help.[2] Evidence for yoga, acupuncture, and massage is insufficient.[1] Surgery may be useful if certain underlying problems are present.[2]

Dysmenorrhea is estimated to occur in 20% to 90% of women of reproductive age.[1] It is the most common menstrual disorder.[2] Typically it starts within a year of the first menstrual period.[1] When there is no underlying cause often the pain improves with age or following having a child.[2]

Signs and symptoms

The main symptom of dysmenorrhea is pain concentrated in the lower abdomen or pelvis.[1] It is also commonly felt in the right or left side of the abdomen. It may radiate to the thighs and lower back.[1]

Symptoms often co-occurring with menstrual pain include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, headache, dizziness, disorientation, hypersensitivity to sound, light, smell and touch, fainting, and fatigue. Symptoms of dysmenorrhea often begin immediately following ovulation and can last until the end of menstruation. This is because dysmenorrhea is often associated with changes in hormonal levels in the body that occur with ovulation. The use of certain types of birth control pills can prevent the symptoms of dysmenorrhea, because they stop ovulation from occurring.


Dysmenorrhea can be classified as either primary or secondary based on the absence or presence of an underlying cause. Secondary dysmenorrhea is dysmenorrhea which is associated with an existing condition.

The most common cause of secondary dysmenorrhea is endometriosis, which can be visually confirmed by laparoscopy in approximately 70% of adolescents with dysmenorrhea.[4]

Other causes of secondary dysmenorrhea include leiomyoma,[5] adenomyosis,[6] ovarian cysts, and pelvic congestion.[7]

Unequal leg length might hypothetically be one of the contributors, as it may contribute to a tilted pelvis, which may cause lower back pain,[8] which in turn may be mistaken for menstrual pain, as women with lower back pain experience increased pain during their periods.

Other skeletal abnormalities, such as scoliosis (sometimes caused by spina bifida) might be possible contributors as well.


During a woman's menstrual cycle, the endometrium thickens in preparation for potential pregnancy. After ovulation, if the ovum is not fertilized and there is no pregnancy, the built-up uterine tissue is not needed and thus shed.

Molecular compounds called prostaglandins are released during menstruation, due to the destruction of the endometrial cells, and the resultant release of their contents.[9] Release of prostaglandins and other inflammatory mediators in the uterus cause the uterus to contract. These substances are thought to be a major factor in primary dysmenorrhea.[10] When the uterine muscles contract, they constrict the blood supply to the tissue of the endometrium, which, in turn, breaks down and dies. These uterine contractions continue as they squeeze the old, dead endometrial tissue through the cervix and out of the body through the vagina. These contractions, and the resulting temporary oxygen deprivation to nearby tissues, are responsible for the pain or "cramps" experienced during menstruation.

Compared with other women, women with primary dysmenorrhea have increased activity of the uterine muscle with increased contractility and increased frequency of contractions.[11]

In one research study using MRI, visible features of the uterus were compared in dysmenorrheic and eumenorrheic (normal) participants. The study concluded that in dysmenorrheic patients, visible features on cycle days 1-3 correlated with the degree of pain, and differed significantly from the control group.[12]


The diagnosis of dysmenorrhea is usually made simply on a medical history of menstrual pain that interferes with daily activities. However, there is no universally accepted gold standard technique for quantifying the severity of menstrual pains.[13] Yet, there are quantification models, called menstrual symptometrics, that can be used to estimate the severity of menstrual pains as well as correlate them with pain in other parts of the body, menstrual bleeding and degree of interference with daily activities.[13]

Further work-up

Once a diagnosis of dysmenorrhea is made, further work-up is required to search for any secondary underlying cause of it, in order to be able to treat it specifically and to avoid aggravation of a perhaps serious underlying cause.

Further work-up includes a specific medical history of symptoms and menstrual cycles and a pelvic exam.[2] Based on results from these, additional exams and tests may be motivated, such as:



Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are effective in relieving the pain of primary dysmenorrhea.[14] They can have side effects of nausea, dyspepsia, peptic ulcer, and diarrhea.[15] People who are unable to take the more common NSAIDs may be prescribed a COX-2 inhibitor.[16]

Hormonal birth control

Although use of hormonal birth control can improve or relieve symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea,[17][18] a 2001 systematic review found that no conclusions can be made about the efficacy of commonly used modern lower dose combined oral contraceptive pills for primary dysmenorrhea.[19] Norplant[20] and Depo-provera[21][22] are also effective, since these methods often induce amenorrhea. The intrauterine system (Mirena IUD) may be useful in reducing symptoms.[23]


A review indicated the effectiveness of transdermal nitroglycerin.[24]

Alternative medicine

There is poor evidence for treatments other than medications.[1]

One review found thiamine and vitamin E to be likely effective.[25] It found the effects of fish oil and vitamin B12 to be unknown.[25]

Another review found that Vitamin B1 to be effective. Magnesium supplementation are a promising possible treatment. And insufficient evidence to recommend any other herbal or dietary supplement, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin B6 among others which have been studied.[26]

A 2008 review found promising evidence for Chinese herbal medicine for primary dysmenorrhea, but that the evidence was limited by its poor methodological quality.[27] Reviews found tentative evidence that ginger powder may be effective for primary dysmenorrhea.[28][29]


One review found acupressure, topical heat, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and behavioral interventions likely effective.[25] It found acupuncture and magnets to be unknown.[25] Another review found tentative evidence for acupuncture.[30]

A 2007 systematic review found some scientific evidence that behavioral interventions may be effective, but that the results should be viewed with caution due to poor quality of the data.[31]

Spinal manipulation does not appear to be helpful.[25] Although claims have been made for chiropractic care, under the theory that treating subluxations in the spine may decrease symptoms,[32] a 2006 systematic review found that overall no evidence suggests that spinal manipulation is effective for treatment of primary and secondary dysmenorrhea.[33]


Dysmenorrhea is estimated to affect approximately 25% of women.[34] Reports of dysmenorrhea are greatest among individuals in their late teens and 20s, with reports usually declining with age. The prevalence in adolescent females has been reported to be 67.2% by one study[35] and 90% by another.[34] It has been stated that there is no significant difference in prevalence or incidence between races.[34] Yet, a study of Hispanic adolescent females indicated a high prevalence and impact in this group.[36] Another study indicated that dysmenorrhea was present in 36.4% of participants, and was significantly associated with lower age and lower parity.[37] Childbearing is said to relieve dysmenorrhea, but this does not always occur. One study indicated that in nulliparous women with primary dysmenorrhea, the severity of menstrual pain decreased significantly after age 40.[38] A questionnaire concluded that menstrual problems, including dysmenorrhea, were more common in females who had been sexually abused.[39]

A survey in Norway showed that 14 percent of females between the ages of 20 to 35 experience symptoms so severe that they stay home from school or work.[40] Among adolescent girls, dysmenorrhea is the leading cause of recurrent short-term school absence.[41]


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