What is are menstrual cramps?

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for pain with your period (menstruation) or menstrual cramps. There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea is the name for common menstrual cramps that come back over and over again (recurrent) and aren’t due to other diseases. Pain usually begins one or two days before you get your period or when bleeding actual starts. You may feel pain ranging from mild to severe in the lower abdomen, back or thighs.

Pain can typically last 12 to 72 hours, and you might have other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and even diarrhea. Common menstrual cramps may become less painful as you get older and may stop entirely if you have a baby.

If you have painful periods because of a disorder or an infection in your female reproductive organs, it is called secondary dysmenorrhea. Pain from secondary dysmenorrhea usually begins earlier in the menstrual cycle and lasts longer than common menstrual cramps. You usually don’t have nausea, vomiting, fatigue or diarrhea.

What causes painful menstrual cramps?

Menstrual cramps happen when a chemical called prostaglandin makes the uterus contract (tighten up). The uterus, the muscular organ where a baby grows, contracts throughout your menstrual cycle. During menstruation, the uterus contracts more strongly. If the uterus contracts too strongly, it can press against nearby blood vessels, cutting off the supply of oxygen to muscle tissue. You feel pain when part of the muscle briefly loses its supply of oxygen.

How does secondary dysmenorrhea cause menstrual cramps?

Menstrual pain from secondary dysmenorrhea is a result of problems with the reproductive organs. Conditions that can cause cramping include:

  • Endometriosis: A condition in which the tissue lining the uterus (the endometrium) is found outside of the uterus. Because these pieces of tissue bleed during your period, they can cause swelling, scarring and pain.
  • Adenomyosis: A condition where the lining of the uterus grows into the muscle of the uterus. This condition can cause the uterus to get much bigger than it should be, along with abnormal bleeding and pain.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): An infection caused by bacteria that starts in the uterus and can spread to other reproductive organs. PID can cause pain in the stomach or pain during sex.
  • Cervical stenosis: Narrowing of the cervix, or the opening to the uterus.
  • Fibroids (benign tumors): Growths on the inside, outside or in the walls of the uterus

What are the symptoms of menstrual cramps?

If you have painful periods, you may have:

  • Aching pain in the abdomen (pain may be severe at times).
  • Feeling of pressure in the abdomen.
  • Pain in the hips, lower back and inner thighs.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/20/2020.

References

  • Office on Women’s Health. Menstrual Cycle. Accessed 11/20/2020.
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dysmenorrhea: Painful Periods. Accessed 11/20/2020.
  • InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Period pain: Overview. 2008 Feb 22 [Updated 2019 Aug 1]. Accessed 11/20/2020.
  • Fisher C, Adams J, Hickman L, Sibbritt D. The use of complementary and alternative medicine by 7427 Australian women with cyclic perimenstrual pain and discomfort: a cross-sectional study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016;16:129.
  • Nagy H, Khan MAB. Dysmenorrhea. [Updated 2020 Jul 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Accessed 11/20/2020.

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