Dysmenorrhea and the Reasons for Menstrual Cramps

Having cramps
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Dysmenorrhea simply refers to the pain of menstrual cramps during your period. More than 50 percent of women experience menstrual pain and it usually lasts for one or two days during your period.

Menstrual cramps are common during your teen years, but as you probably know, women in their twenties and older can suffer from painful periods too.

About one in ten women experience menstrual pain so severe that they are unable to perform their normal routine for one to three days each month, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Menstrual Pain

A general description of menstrual cramps is a dull ache or a feeling of pressure in the lower abdomen. The pain and intensity are variable from woman to woman. Occasionally dysmenorrhea is severe enough to cause symptoms beyond cramping, aches, and pain including:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea


Like all muscles, your uterus contracts and relaxes. Most of the time women are unaware of these contractions, but during menstruation, uterine contractions are much stronger. It is these strong, and sometimes painful, contractions we refer to as menstrual cramps.

Uterine contractions are caused by prostaglandins, which are a natural substance made by the body. Strong uterine contractions cause the blood supply to the uterus to temporarily shut down. This deprives your uterine muscle of its oxygen supply, which sets up the cycle of menstrual contractions and pain.

Two Types of Dysmenorrhea

There are two types of dysmenorrhea. While the symptoms are similar, the causes are different.

Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common type and it's caused by the normal production of prostaglandins as described above. It often occurs in women who have not had children and disappears after a full-term pregnancy.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is the second type of menstrual cramps. It may feel similar to primary dysmenorrhea, but the cause is different. The secondary type is caused by a disease in the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries rather than the normal production of prostaglandins. This type of menstrual pain often lasts longer than primary dysmenorrhea and, in many cases, causes more severe pain. Women with secondary dysmenorrhea may experience pelvic pain at other times of the month or during sexual intercourse. Some of the most common causes of secondary dysmenorrhea include:

When to Call the Doctor

Your dysmenorrhea symptoms may progress to the point that you begin to wonder if you need medical attention. Remember, your healthcare provider is there to help you. Most medical offices have nurses who are happy to evaluate whether you need to be seen in the office, and/or answer your questions over the phone. You should definitely call your healthcare provider if:

  • You are unable to relieve menstrual pain with typical over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen.
  • You experience pelvic pain that is not associated with menstruation.
  • You experience a fever, nausea, or vomiting with your pain.
  • You experience pelvic pain that is unusually severe or different in any way.