Most women experience some form of period pain during their lifetime. The medical term for period pain is dysmenorrhoea. The pain caused by menstruation is usually felt in your lower abdominal area, but can also spread to your back and thighs.
How common is it?
Although it is not known exactly how many women experience period pain, research has shown that it is a very common condition. Some studies suggest that approximately three quarters of young women and a quarter to a half of adult women experience pain and discomfort during their period. For up to one in five women, this pain is so severe that it stops them from doing their daily activities.
Most cases of period pain are a normal part of your menstrual cycle and can be treated at home. However, in some cases, period pain can be caused by an underlying medical condition such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease (see box).
If your period pain is severe, visit your GP to check that no medical condition is causing your pain.
Conditions associated with severe period pain
- endometriosis (where pieces of the womb lining are found outside the womb, such as in the fallopian tubes)
- fibroids (non-cancerous tumours that grow in or around the womb)
- pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection of the female reproductive organs)
- adenomyosis (where the womb lining grows into the muscle wall of the womb)
- having an intrauterine device (IUD) fitted
The main symptom of period pain is painful muscle cramps in your lower abdomen (tummy). Sometimes the pain comes in intense spasms, while at other times the pain may be dull but more constant.
Period pain can sometimes spread to your lower back and your thighs. You may also notice that the pain varies with each period. Some periods may cause you little or no discomfort, while others may be far more painful.
As well as feeling pain in your abdomen, you may have a number of other symptoms, such as:
- nausea (feeling sick)
- feeling faint
How long will my period pain last?
Your period pain usually starts when your bleeding begins, although some women also feel pain several days before their period starts.
Period pain normally lasts for 12-24 hours, although in more severe cases it may last for several days. The pain is usually at its worst when your bleeding is heaviest.
The symptoms of painful periods tend to improve as you get older. Many women also notice an improvement after they have had children.
Most cases of period pain are a normal part of your menstrual cycle and can usually be treated at home. This is known as primary dysmenorrhoea.
The period pain occurs when the muscular wall of the womb (uterus) contracts. Very mild contractions continually pass through your womb, but they are usually so mild that most women cannot feel them.
During your period, the wall of your womb starts to contract more vigorously, to encourage the lining of your womb to shed away as part of your monthly menstrual cycle. When the muscular wall of your womb contracts, it compresses the blood vessels that line your womb. This temporarily cuts off the blood supply to your womb. Your blood vessels help carry oxygen to the organs and tissues within your body. Without oxygen, the tissues in your womb release chemicals that trigger pain in your body.
While your body is releasing these pain-triggering chemicals, it is also producing another set of chemicals known as prostaglandins. Prostaglandins encourage the womb muscles to contract further, therefore increasing the level of pain.
It is not yet known why some women experience more period pain than others. It has been suggested that some women may develop a build-up of prostaglandins, which means their contractions are much stronger than other women's.
Period pain caused by a medical condition
Less commonly, your period pain may be caused by an underlying medical condition. This is known as secondary dysmenorrhoea. These conditions include the following:
- Endometriosis: the cells that normally line the womb start to grow in other places within the body, usually in the fallopian tubes and ovaries. When these cells shed and fall away, they can cause intense pain. For more information, see the Health A-Z: endometriosis .
- Fibroids: this condition occurs when non-cancerous (benign) tumours grow in the womb. They can make your periods heavy and painful. For more information, see the Health A-Z: fibroids
- Pelvic inflammatory disease: your womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries become infected with bacteria, leaving them severely inflamed (swollen and irritated). For more information, see the Health A-Z: pelvic inflammatory disease
- Adenomyosis: the tissue that normally lines the womb starts to grow within the muscular wall of the womb. This extra tissue can make your periods particularly painful.
- Intrauterine device (IUD): a form of contraception made from copper and plastic, which fits inside the womb. It can sometimes cause period pain, especially in the first few months after it is inserted.
If you have secondary dysmenorrhoea, you may also have other symptoms, such as:
- irregular periods
- bleeding in between periods
- thick or foul-smelling vaginal discharge
- pain during sex
You are more likely to develop secondary dysmenorrhoea as you get older. Most women affected by secondary dysmenorrhoea are between 30 and 45 years of age.
Secondary dysmenorrhoea is normally indicated by a change in your normal pattern of pain. For example, you may find your period pain has significantly increased, or that it lasts for much longer than normal.
If you experience a significant change to your normal period pattern, see your GP to discuss your symptoms.
Most women who have period pain find it is mild enough to treat at home. However, if your periods are causing you severe pain, contact your GP for advice. Also contact your GP if you have:
- a fever
- sudden and severe pain in your abdomen
- a large amount of blood clots in your period
- thick or foul-smelling vaginal discharge
When you visit your GP they will look at your medical history and ask you to describe your symptoms. They may also ask about your menstrual cycle and sexual activity.
Try not to feel embarrassed or awkward when talking to your GP about this. They need to know this information to help them determine the cause of your period pain. It will allow them to provide the most appropriate treatment for your pain.
Although most cases of period pain are not caused by an underlying condition, your GP may feel it necessary to carry out a physical examination so that any other conditions can be detected or ruled out. Usually, the physical examination will involve your GP examining your pelvic area.
During a pelvic examination, your GP will examine your vulva and labia (external genitals) for signs of bleeding or infection. They may also need to examine you internally. This will involve your GP inserting gloved, lubricated fingers into your vagina to feel for any abnormalities in your womb or ovaries.
A pelvic examination will only be carried out by a health professional who is qualified to perform the procedure, such as a GP or a gynaecologist (a specialist in the female reproductive system). This type of examination will not be carried out without your consent, and you will have the option of having someone with you during the procedure.
If your period pain does not respond to treatment, or your GP suspects an underlying condition, you may be referred to a specialist. In most cases, you will be referred to a gynaecologist.
To determine what might be causing your period pain, your gynaecologist may have to carry out a series of tests and procedures. Some of these are included below.
Most cases of period pain can be treated at home. You can buy a number of painkillers over the counter to help manage your pain. There are also several self-help techniques that you can try.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
In most cases of period pain, your GP will either prescribe or advise you to take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This type of medicine works for approximately seven in 10 women who have period pain.
You can buy some NSAIDs over the counter, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. If these NSAIDs are not effective, your GP may prescribe you an alternative NSAID, such as naproxen or mefenamic acid.
NSAIDs are not suitable for people with asthma, or those with stomach, kidney or liver problems. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid taking them. Aspirin should not be given to anyone under 16 years of age. If you are not sure if NSAIDs are suitable, speak to your GP or pharmacist.
Other painkilling medicines
If NSAIDs are not suitable for you or you do not find them effective, you may be able to take an alternative painkilling medicine. Paracetamol has very few side effects and is easily available over the counter. However, studies have shown that it does not reduce pain as effectively as an NSAID.
If you are not getting enough pain relief from NSAIDs or paracetamol alone, your GP may prescribe you a painkiller called codeine to take as well.
Combined oral contraceptive pill
If you need a contraceptive as well as relief from period pain, your GP may prescribe you a combined oral contraceptive pill.
Combined contraceptive pills can help to ease period pain because they thin the lining of the womb and also help to reduce the amount of prostaglandin chemicals that your body releases. If the lining of the womb is thinner, the muscles do not have to contract as much when it needs to shed away as part of your monthly menstrual cycle.
There are a number of ways you can treat your painful periods at home. Although you may not stop your pain completely, these measures can often help to ease or reduce it.
- Exercise: although you may not want to exercise while you are having a painful period, keeping active can help to reduce pain. Try some gentle swimming, walking or cycling.
- Heat: applying heat to your abdomen can help to ease your pain. You could try using either a heat pad or a hot water bottle. If using a hot water bottle, make sure the water is hot, not boiling, as you may damage your skin.
- Warm bath or shower: taking a bath or shower can help to relieve your pain, while also helping you to relax.
- Massage: light circular massage around your lower abdomen may help to reduce pain.
- Relaxation techniques: you might want to try a relaxing activity, such as yoga or Pilates, to help distract you from feelings of pain and discomfort.
- Transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS): a TENS machine works by releasing small electrical impulses that stimulate the nerves in your pelvic area, helping to block pain. The impulses are released through sticky pads (electrodes) that are placed on your skin. TENS machines are widely available from pharmacies and can be used at home.
Period pain caused by a medical condition
If your period pain is caused by an underlying condition, your treatment will depend on which condition you have. For example, pelvic inflammatory disease may require antibiotics to treat the infection, while fibroids may need to be surgically removed.
Although you may be prescribed painkillers to take in the meantime, it is important to treat your underlying condition.