Painful Periods (Dysmenorrhea)

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painful menstrual crampsIt’s common for many girls to have mild pain with their periods a couple of days each month. However, if your pain is not relieved with over-the-counter pain medicine, and you miss school or doing things with your friends because of it, you may have “dysmenorrhea” (pronounced: dis–men–o–ree–a).

What is dysmenorrhea?

Dysmenorrhea is a medical term that means “difficult or painful periods”. There are two types of dysmenorrhea; primary and secondary.

  • Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common kind of dysmenorrhea. Cramping pain in the lower abdomen (belly) can start from 1–2 days before your period begins and can last 2–4 days.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhea is when cramps are a result of a medical problem such as endometriosis. Endometriosis is a condition that occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found outside its normal location. This usually causes pain before and/or during a young woman’s menstrual period.

What causes dysmenorrhea?

The cramps you feel as a result of dysmenorrhea are caused by uterine contractions (when your uterus tightens and relaxes, allowing blood to leave your uterus). The lining of your uterus releases special chemicals called “prostaglandins” (pronounced: pross–ta–glan–dins). These chemicals are released from the lining of the uterus and increase the strength of the contractions, especially during the first couple of days of a woman’s menstrual cycle (when levels are high). High levels of prostaglandins may also cause nausea and lightheadedness.

What are the symptoms of dysmenorrhea?

Most young women who have dysmenorrhea have lower back pain and cramping in the lower area of the abdomen during their periods. This pain can range from dull to throbbing. Some girls may have other symptoms during their period such as nausea, vomiting, loose bowel movements/diarrhea, constipation, bloating in the belly area, headaches, and/or lightheadedness, all of which can be mild to severe.

Is it normal to have cramps during your period?

Yes, it’s normal to have mild cramps during your period, because of uterine contractions. The uterus is a muscle that tightens and relaxes. This can cause jabbing, or cramp–like pain. However, if the discomfort is not relieved with over-the-counter medications and causes you to miss school or other daily activities, it could mean that there is another reason for your symptoms.

Some or all of these problems may start a day or two before your menstrual period and can last for part or all of your menstrual period. These signs could be caused by other medical conditions and therefore it’s important to tell your health care provider about all of your symptoms.

Is it okay to exercise when I have my period?

Generally, it’s fine to exercise when you have your period, and it’s a great way to stay fit and healthy. Some girls like to exercise when they have their period; other girls are uncomfortable exercising during their period. Talk to your coach or gym teacher if exercising is uncomfortable during your period.

Are menstrual cramps the same as PMS (Pre–Menstrual Syndrome)?

Menstrual cramps are not the same as PMS. Symptoms of PMS such as mood swings, breast soreness, and bloating happen before a woman’s period begins and get a lot better when it starts. On the other hand, with dysmenorrhea, cramps are usually worse the first few days of a woman’s period and have a different cause and treatment.

How is dysmenorrhea treated?

If your menstrual cramps are painful, you may want to take an over–the–counter nonsteroidal antinflammatory (NSAID) medication for 1–2 days of your cycle. If your pain is severe, you may want to take an NSAID 1-2 days before your period starts. These medications are “anti–prostaglandins” (pronounced: an–tee–pross–ta–glan–dins), meaning that they work to stop the cramping effects of prostaglandins. They help to relieve discomfort, make your flow lighter, and cause your uterus to cramp less. You can use an over–the–counter medicine with ibuprofen or naproxen sodium in it. Make sure you read the label so you know how much and how often to take it. You should not take these medications if you are allergic to aspirin–like medications or if you have stomach problems (such as ulcers). Remember to always take these medications with food.

If you continue to have pain, your health care provider may give you a prescription for oral contraceptive pills (OCP’s, also called birth control pills). OCP’s contain the hormones estrogen and progesterone. The goal of OCP treatment is to stop your periods and pain. If you still have pain after 2–3 months of taking OCP’s and mild pain medication, your doctor may talk to you about scheduling a laparoscopy to find out the reason for your pain.

Is there anything else I can do to help my dysmenorrhea?

Natural remedies such as a microwavable heating pack or a heating pad placed on your lower abdomen may help. Be sure to check that the heating pad is not too hot, as it can burn your skin. Soaking in a warm bath or hot tub may also relieve uncomfortable cramps. Acupuncture is an complementary therapy that’s sometimes recommended to treat dysmenorrhea. You can try different treatments to find out what works best for you.

You can also try tracking your menstrual cycle with our period and pain tracker. Check out the sample period and pain tracker that shows you the correct way to fill in the information.

What is a Period and Pain Tracker?

This is a tool to help you keep track of your menstrual cycle and any pain you may have; when it comes, where it hurts, how long it lasts, and what relieves it. It’s a good idea to keep track of your pain for about 3 cycles. Be sure to bring your completed Period and Pain Tracker with you when you have appointments with your health care provider or gynecologist.

Dysmenorrhea can be challenging, especially if painful periods get in the way of important things in your life. Learning how to track your periods and pain will help you see if your pain happens more than just 1-2 days a month. Your pain should never make you feel disadvantaged compared to other young women. Remember, if you don’t feel equally capable as other young women your age (because of pelvic pain), you need to make an appointment with your health care provider to discuss causes and treatment.