Menstrual cramps (Dysmenorrhea)

What are menstrual cramps?

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for menstrual cramps. Dysmenorrhea affects most women at some stage during their reproductive years. There are two types of dysmenorrhea, primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea is now believed to be caused by an excess of one of the prostaglandin hormones normally found in the body. Excess amounts of this hormone result in excessive contractions of the uterus (cramping). Secondary dysmenorrhea may be caused by an underlying disease, infection, or gynelogical problem.


What are some symptoms of menstrual cramps?  

Abdominal cramps, lower back pin, and leg pain are the most common symptoms of dysmenorrhea. Nausea and vomiting, constipation or diarrhea may also be present. If the pain is severe, light-headiness may be experienced. Primary dysmenorrhea typically begins with the onset of the menstrual period and usually does not last more than two days. Secondary dysmenorrhea may begin prior to the menstrual period and last throughout the period. If the pain in the pelvic area is accompanied by fever, abnormal vaginal bleeding and/or pain with intercourse, it may indicate a serious infection and medical care should be sought promptly.


How can I treat menstrual cramps?

The first important step in treatment is to see a Women's Health Care clinician for an examination in order to rule out the possibility of underlying disease or anatomic abnormality as the cause of dysmenorrhea. Secondary dysmenorrhea is often difficult to identify and treat. There are a number of treatment alternatives for primary dysmenorrhea. Antiprostaglandin medications, which inhibit the production of prostaglandin hormones, are available and frequently provide relief. These include ibuprofen and aspirin, which can be purchased over the counter, and related medications, which require prescriptions. They are non-narcotic. Women who are allergic to aspirin, have severe or persistent anemia, or have ulcers or intestinal bleeding should not take these medications without consulting a clinician. Birth control pills usually reduce menstrual cramping. They may be an option for women needing contraception and for whom birth control pills are not contraindicated.


Are there other things I can do to help prevent or reduce menstrual cramps?  

A well-balanced diet and regular exercise during the menstrual period may help reduce menstrual cramps. By reducing salt and sugar intake, avoiding spicy foods and maintaining an adequate water intake (6-8 glasses per day) may lessen water retention and bloating. A warm bath or hot water bottle held to the abdomen may also help ease pain.