Many women have painful periods. Sometimes, the pain makes it hard to do normal household, job, or school-related activities for a few days during each menstrual cycle. Painful menstruation is the leading cause of lost time from school and work among women in their teens and 20s.
Painful menstrual periods fall into two groups, depending on the cause:
Primary dysmenorrhea is menstrual pain that occurs around the time that menstrual periods first begin in otherwise healthy young women. In most cases, this pain is not related to a specific problem with the uterus or other pelvic organs. Increased activity of the hormone prostaglandin, which is produced in the uterus, is thought to play a role in this condition.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is menstrual pain that develops later in women who have had normal periods. It is often related to problems in the uterus or other pelvic organs, such as:
The following steps may help you to avoid prescription medicines:
Apply a heating pad to your lower belly area, below your belly button. Never fall asleep with the heating pad on.
Do light circular massage with your fingertips around your lower belly area.
Drink warm beverages.
Eat light but frequent meals.
Keep your legs raised while lying down, or lie on your side with your knees bent.
Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga.
Try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen. Start taking it the day before your period is expected to start, and continue taking it regularly for the first few days of your period.
Try vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium supplements, especially if your pain is from PMS.
Take warm showers or baths.
Walk or exercise regularly, including pelvic rocking exercises.
Lose weight if you are overweight. Get regular, aerobic exercise.
If these self-care measures do not work, your health care provider may offer you treatment such as:
Pattanittum P, Kunyanone N, Brown J, et al. Dietary supplements for dysmenorrhea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;3:CD002124. PMID: 27000311. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27000311.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.