An Overview of Menstrual Cramps

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If you get a period, you have probably experienced menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, at one time or another. For some, menstrual cramps are debilitating while others experience only mild discomfort or nothing at all during their period.

Types of Menstrual Cramps

There are two types of menstrual cramps:

  • Primary dysmenorrhea occurs most often in young women who have just begun their menstrual cycles. It often becomes less severe when a woman reaches her mid-20s or after giving birth. These cramps are strong contractions of the uterus triggered by substances in the body called prostaglandins.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhea is diagnosed when menstrual cramps are the result of a health condition other than your period, including endometriosis, fibroid tumors, and ovarian cysts.
She's a little under the weather
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Menstrual Cramp Symptoms

Symptoms of menstrual cramps can vary by the individual. Some people experience a dull, throbbing ache while others have intense and often debilitating pain radiating to the lower back and thighs.

The pain tends to start one to three days before your period, peaks 24 hours after the onset of your period, and subsides in two to three days. Some people will also have nausea, headache, dizziness, and loose stools.

When to See a Doctor

Schedule an appointment to see your gynecologist if menstrual cramps are interfering with your quality of life, are progressively worsening, or have started suddenly and without explanation after the age of 25.


A healthy body naturally produces prostaglandins, which have a hormone-like effect. They are involved in a variety of bodily functions including the uterine muscle contraction that causes primary dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps.

At the beginning of your period, your body's prostaglandin level is higher than usual. Generally, the higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more menstrual pain. By contrast, if you don't ovulate, either because of birth control or menopause, the risk of cramping is low to non-existent.

The risk of severe menstrual cramps is greater if you smoke, are under 30, have heavy or irregular bleeding, began puberty before 12, or have a family history of severe cramping.


It might sound simple, but relaxing and letting those around you know that you are not feeling yourself will help by reducing the stress of your everyday life that may contribute to your menstrual cramps. There are other lifestyle and pharmaceutical options that can help.


If you are prone to cramping, make an effort to engage in regular physical activity when you are not having your period. The more active and regular you are with exercise, the more regular your periods will be. Regular periods often translate to a less heavy flow and fewer cramps.

Dietary changes, such as eating fresh and healthy food, may also help. Try healthier eating, focusing on the following foods:

  • Calcium-rich foods, such as dried figs, ricotta cheese, broccoli, almonds, and canned sardines
  • Foods high in antioxidants, such as berries, kale, tomatoes, bell pepper, and dark chocolate
  • Lean proteins, including tofu and cold-water fish

By contrast, try consuming significantly less refined flour or sugar, trans-fats (hydrogenated oils), caffeine, and alcohol.

If you have severe cramps, trying taking a warm bath or placing a heating pad on your lower abdomen or back to help alleviate the pain. Keeping well hydrated also helps.


Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Motrin (ibuprofen), aspirin, or Aleve (naproxen sodium) are commonly used to relieve everyday pain and menstrual cramps. Tylenol (acetaminophen) will help the pain, but it does not affect prostaglandins.

If cramps are severe, the doctor may prescribe oral contraceptives to prevent ovulation and ease painful periods. A hormonal intrauterine device (IUD) can sometimes reduce menstrual cramps, too. Common side effects of hormonal contraceptives include abnormal bleeding, weight gain, and mood changes.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Some studies have shown that complementary therapies, including massage, acupuncture, and yoga can help alleviate menstrual cramps, but more research is needed.

Other studies show promising results for some women who have taken certain supplements and herbs to treat their cramps (including teas, pills, and tinctures). For example, one trial found that vitamin D, vitamin E, and ginger supplements significantly reduced dysmenorrhea symptoms, with ginger being most effective. But, in general, research on supplements and herbs is not yet conclusive.

Remember that taking supplements or herbal remedies can cause side effects just like pharmaceutical drugs do. If you seek medical attention for your symptoms, be sure to disclose any and all supplements you take to your healthcare provider.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Dysmenorrhea.

  2. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dysmenorrhea: painful periods.

  3. Dehnavi ZM, Jafarnejad F, Kamali Z. The effect of aerobic exercise on primary dysmenorrhea: A clinical trial study. J Educ Health Promot. 2018;7:3. doi:10.4103/jehp.jehp_79_17

  4. Penn State Hershey, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Menstrual pain.

  5. Planned Parenthood. IUD.

  6. The Royal Women's Hospital. Complementary & alternative therapies.

  7. Pakniat H, Chegini V, Ranjkesh F, Hosseini MA. Comparison of the effect of vitamin E, vitamin D and ginger on the severity of primary dysmenorrhea: a single-blind clinical trialObstet Gynecol Sci. 2019;62(6):462-468. doi:10.5468/ogs.2019.62.6.462

Additional Reading
  • National Osteoporosis Foundation: A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods.

  • The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology: Dysmenorrhea.

  • University of Maryland Medical Center: Menstrual Pain.

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.