Understand your painful periods symptoms, including 4 causes & common questions.
Symptoms of painful periods
More than half of all women of childbearing age report pain with their menstrual periods for at least one to two days of their cycle. It is important and necessary for the uterus to contract during a menstrual period, to ensure that all of the unneeded lining is completely shed and pushed out. This cramping may cause discomfort but should not be painful.
The contracting of the uterine muscles is caused by a substance called prostaglandin. It is secreted by the built-up lining, and when there is enough prostaglandin, the uterus contracts and the period begins. In some cases, this mild, normal cramping becomes painful due to an overproduction of prostaglandin.
The contracting can also become painful due to one of several disorders of the female reproductive tract. It's also possible to have both high prostaglandin and some abnormality of the organs at the same time.
The condition of having painful periods is also called painful menstruation, menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea.
Common characteristics of painful periods
Characteristics of painful periods may vary, but will likely include the following details.
- Severity: It may be tight, sharp, or cramping.
- Location: It will likely be in the lower abdomen.
- Radiating: The pain may radiate into the thighs and lower back.
A normal menstrual period lasts from about three to five days, and the cramping should cease after about the second day.
Who is most often affected?
Women who are most likely to experience painful periods include:
- Younger women: They are more likely to have prostaglandin-related pain, which often improves with age and/or after giving birth.
- Older women: They are more likely to have pain related to disorders of, or abnormal growths on, the uterus and other pelvic organs.
Is it serious?
The pain associated with this symptom can vary in severity depending on the cause.
- Not serious: Mild cramping that is relieved with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen is most likely not serious.
- Moderately serious: Cramping that is painful enough to interfere with school, work, and normal relationships can be treated by a gynecologist. This specialist can rule out any serious causes and offer treatment that can ease the symptoms.
- Serious: Severe pain along with heavy bleeding especially if it occurs for more than just one to two days per month, or even throughout the month should be treated by a gynecologist as soon as possible. Menstrual pain this severe almost never resolves on its own, but there are medications and surgical procedures that can help.
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Causes of painful periods
Many conditions can cause the symptom of painful periods. We've listed several different causes here, in approximate order from most to least common.
High prostaglandin levels
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that are made in the lining of the uterus. They increase as the lining builds up and decrease as it is shed. It is the prostaglandins that cause the cramping. If they are overproduced, the cramping can become severe.
Abnormal tissue buildup
In some cases, the same tissue that builds up on the inner surface of the uterus each month also builds up where it shouldn't. This menstrual tissue may grow on the outer surfaces of the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and bladder (called endometriosis). This tissue also produces prostaglandins, and it also contracts and bleeds. This can cause severe pain throughout the menstrual cycle.
Abnormal growths within, or on the inner (such as fibroids) or outer surface of, the muscular walls of the uterus may lead to pain. These can even make the normal contracting of the uterus to expel the lining very painful.
- Benign growths: These can occur on the inner, outer, or middle muscle walls of the uterus, again making normal contractions very painful. However, it is also possible to have benign growths that are otherwise painless.
- Overgrown tissue: Discussed prior, the menstrual tissue that normally lines the uterus may grow into the muscle walls of the uterus (called adenomyosis), making the normal contractions very painful.
Rare and unusual causes
It is possible for tumors of the pelvic organs to cause severe menstrual cramping and bleeding. Your doctor can diagnose these and begin a plan of treatment.
We've listed some specific conditions that can cause painful periods, along with how to identify each of them:
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Menstrual cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, are actually contractions of the uterus as it expels its lining during a woman's monthly period.
A certain amount of mild cramping is normal, triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. However, painful cramps may be caused by underlying conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, high prostaglandin levels, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID.)
Severe cramping may be present, as well as nausea, headache, and dull pain that radiates to the low back and thighs. It is most common in women under age 30 who smoke, have heavy and irregular periods, and have never given birth.
An obstetrician/gynecologist (women's specialist) can do tests for underlying conditions such as those mentioned above. Women over age 25 who suddenly begin having severe cramps should see a doctor to rule out the sudden onset of a more serious concern.
Treatment of mild cramping can be done with heating pads to the abdomen and with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen. Birth control pills, which regulate the menstrual cycle, are often effective in lessening cramps.
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, lower back pain, abdominal pain that shoots to the back
Symptoms that always occur with menstrual cramps: abdominal pain (stomach ache)
Symptoms that never occur with menstrual cramps: being severely ill, disapearance of periods for over a year
Endometriosis is a condition where the tissue that normally forms the lining of the uterus – the endometrium – also begins growing on the outside of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. This out-of-place endometrium still thickens and bleeds each month, causing pain, scar tissue, and adhesions.
Risk factors include short menstrual cycles that begin at a young age, with menopause at an older age; never giving birth; uterine abnormalities; family history; and alcohol use.
Symptoms include severe pelvic pain, cramping, and excessive bleeding during menstruation. There may be pain during sexual intercourse and sometimes during bowel movements and urination. Diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and bloating are also common, as is difficulty becoming pregnant.
Endometriosis can be confused with other conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease or irritable bowel syndrome. Permanent infertility can occur with untreated endometriosis.
Diagnosis is made by pelvic examination, ultrasound, and sometimes laparoscopy.
Treatment involves over-the-counter pain relievers and hormone therapy, including contraceptives. Surgery may be done to remove endometriosis tissue. As a last resort, removal of the ovaries and the uterus may be recommended.
Top Symptoms: vaginal discharge, abdominal pain (stomach ache), vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, painful periods
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Uterine fibroids are benign growths in the wall of the uterus and most often appear during childbearing years. Fibroids are almost never associated with cancer.
Those at higher risk include black women and women who started their periods at a young age. Other risk factors are vitamin D deficiency, poor diet, obesity, drinking alcohol, and family history of fibroids.
Fibroids can cause pelvic pressure and pain, severe menstrual cramping, and heavy menstrual bleeding that leads to anemia. Quality of life is diminished due to the chronic pain and discomfort. Though fibroids don't always make it impossible to become pregnant, infertility and pregnancy loss may occur as well as pre-term delivery.
Fibroids can be diagnosed through a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound in a doctor's office.
A gynecologist can prescribe various medications to ease the symptoms and regulate the menstrual cycle. There are also a number of surgical techniques, some minimally invasive, to shrink or remove the fibroids while leaving the uterus in place. Hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus, is an option in some cases.
Top Symptoms: vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Mature cystic teratoma of the ovary
The ovary is an important part of the female reproductive system. An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac in the ovarian tissue. It is not a cancerous growth but because it is in such a small organ it can cause pressure and pain.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), pelvis pain, painful periods, painful sex, spontaneous back pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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Painful periods treatments and relief
If your pain is persistent or interfering with daily life, or you experience heavy bleeding that is abnormal (lasting more than several days or beyond your normal menstrual cycle), you should consult your physician or gynecologist sooner than later. However, there are several methods of managing painful periods at home that you may find to be effective.
There are several methods you can try at home to help alleviate period pain.
- Heat: A heating pad applied to the lower abdomen is sometimes helpful.
- Pain medication: Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, for the first one to two days of cramping.
- Supplements: B supplements may be helpful for muscle cramps, but it is likely more beneficial to make sure that your diet is nutrient-rich via fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins in the first place.
- Improve habits: Make positive changes in diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management in order to improve overall health. If you are overweight, you may consider a weight loss program, since excess body fat often interferes with normal functioning of hormones.
You should consult your physician to discuss the following.
- For heavy or painful bleeding: Cramping painful enough to interfere with activities of daily living should be investigated by your physician, especially if there is heavy bleeding along with it.
- Medication or procedures: Your physician may find that you are in need of additional or alternate medication to address other conditions or procedures if you have any growths.
- Alternative treatments: Acupuncture can be helpful to some women for severe menstrual cramps.
When painful periods are an emergency
Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if you experience very heavy vaginal bleeding that does not stop within a few minutes.
FAQs about painful periods
Here are some frequently asked questions about painful periods.
Do birth control pills help menstrual cramps?
Yes, unless there is also some other disorder of the reproductive tract such as fibroids or any sort of tumor. Birth control pills prevent ovulation and therefore lower the production of prostaglandins. It is the prostaglandins, created in the built-up lining of the uterus, which cause the cramping each month.
Are severe menstrual cramps a sign of cancer?
Only in very rare cases. Severe menstrual cramps are not uncommon and have many other possible causes. If there is also abnormal bleeding, there may be more cause for concern. A gynecologist can perform tests and get a definitive answer one way or the other.
Is abnormal vaginal discharge part of having menstrual cramps?
No. If the dischargebecomes irritating and/or foul-smelling, that is a symptom of some other condition such as a yeast infection or a sexually transmitted disease. This kind of discharge should always be investigated by a gynecologist, who can order tests to determine the cause and then begin the appropriate treatment.
Do severe menstrual cramps cause pain in the digestive tract?
Some women report mild nausea with severe cramps, but otherwise, menstrual cramps do not affect the stomach, intestines, or rectum. If there is pain, cramping, or an abnormal discharge that seems to involve any of these parts of the body, it should be investigated separately by a physician who can arrange for the proper tests and treatment.
Does fibromyalgia make menstrual cramps worse?
In many cases, yes. Some women report that their menstrual pain is worse with fibromyalgia, and their fibromyalgia is worse during their menstrual periods. Fibromyalgia is believed to be an autoimmune disease that causes increased sensitivity of the nerves. When both fibromyalgia and menstrual pain are present, both a fibromyalgia specialist and a gynecologist should be seen.
Questions your doctor may ask about painful periods
- Are you sexually active?
- Have you given birth to any children?
- Do your symptoms occur or worsen before or during your period?
- Have you ever had any surgeries?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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