Menstrual cramps are pains in a woman’s lower abdomen that occur when her menstrual period begins (or just before) and may continue for two to three days. They may be throbbing or aching and can be dull or sharp. Symptoms can range in severity from a mild annoyance to severe pain that interferes with normal activities.
Menstrual cramps are the leading cause of absenteeism in women younger than 30. Although over half of women who have menstrual periods experience some discomfort, 10% are temporarily disabled by symptoms.The following circumstances may make a woman more likely to experience menstrual cramps:
- She started her first period at an early age (younger than 11 years).
- Her menstrual periods are heavy.
- She is overweight or obese.
- She smokes cigarettes or uses alcohol.
- She has never been pregnant.
Causes of Menstrual Pain
Prostaglandins are chemicals a woman’s body produces that cause many of the symptoms associated with menstrual discomfort. The tissue that lines the uterus makes these chemicals. Prostaglandins stimulate the uterine muscles to contract. Women who have high levels of prostaglandin may experience more intense contractions of their uterus and more pain. Prostaglandins may also be responsible for vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches that accompany painful periods.
Other menstrual-type cramps can be caused by conditions of the reproductive tract, such as the following:
- Endometriosis — uterine tissue that appears outside the uterus
- Fibroids and adenomyosis — noncancerous (benign) growths in the uterus
- Infections in the reproductive organs
- Abnormal pregnancy, such as an ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the tubes, outside the uterus)
- IUD (intra-uterine device) used for birth control
- Ovarian cyst
- Narrow cervix
If a woman has had menstrual pain ever since her periods started, the condition is classified as primary dysmenorrhea. If a physical condition such as pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis has developed and is causing the pain, this is called secondary dysmenorrhea. Once the medical condition is treated, the menstrual pain usually goes away.