Symptoms of Menstrual Cramps

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Menstrual cramps are a throbbing, dull pain in the lower abdomen that occur every month before and during a woman’s monthly menstrual period. This happens because during your period your uterus contracts in order to shed its lining (which is why you bleed).

Prostaglandins, a group of lipids that have hormone-like effects cause these contractions and with it, some discomfort or pain. The higher level of prostaglandins you have in your body, the more cramping you may experience.

Plus, as your uterus contracts, it compresses the blood vessels in the lining, which restricts oxygen. This results in your body releasing chemicals that can cause pain.

woman with menstrual cramps
LaylaBird/Getty Images 

Frequent Symptoms

The most common symptoms of menstrual cramps include:

  • Throbbing pain in the lower abdomen
  • Pain that begins one to three days before your period, lasting about two to three days once your period begins.
  • Dull aches
  • Back or upper leg pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches

Most girls will start their period anywhere between the ages of 10 to 15 years old, with the average age being 12. Menstrual cramps may be more noticeable in younger women who have just started getting their period and lessen in pain as a woman gets older or goes through childbirth.

Menstrual cramps are not the same thing as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which starts a week or two before your period begins.

Rare Symptoms

For some women menstrual cramp pain is severe, making it difficult or impossible to carry on their day-to-day life. They may have to take time off work or miss events because their menstrual cramps aren't getting better within a few days. When this happens, menstrual cramps may clinically be described as dysmenorrhea.

There are two types of dysmenorrhea—primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea may happen if you have a particularly heavy menstruation flow or abnormal uterine contractions due to a chemical imbalance in the body.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is usually caused by a separate condition, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease. In both cases, the symptoms are the same as the frequent symptoms listed above, just with much more pain and intensity than the average woman dealing with menstrual cramps typically goes through.


Menstrual cramps don’t cause other medical issues, but conditions associated with more painful menstrual cramps can lead to other health complications. Endometriosis is one, which can lead to fertility issues.

In the case of primary dysmenorrhea women who smoke, drink excessive alcohol during their period, are overweight, started their menstruation cycle before the age of 11, or who have never been pregnant may be more susceptible to a clinical diagnosis of dysmenorrhea and with it, increased menstrual cramping.

Sometimes excessive period pain can be caused by certain birth control methods, particularly if you have an intrauterine device (IUD). While increased cramping is normal after the first few months an IUD is inserted, if you continue to experience severe menstrual cramps it may be due to the type of IUD used or placement of it.

When to See a Doctor

For normal menstrual cramps, most over-the-counter NSAIDs should help ease pain, along with other natural remedies like hot baths, heating pads, and self-care.

However, if you suspect your menstrual cramp pain is more serious than it should be it’s important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to rule out an underlying medical condition.

Red Flags for Period Pain

Seek medical care if you experience these red flag symptoms:

  • Menstrual cramps that don't get better with medication.
  • Pain that spreads beyond the abdomen and back to other areas of the body.
  • Pain that’s paired with extreme nausea.

A Word from Verywell

Menstrual cramps can be an unwelcome monthly visitor, but with 80% of women dealing with them at some point during their lifetime know it’s a common, natural, and safe symptom of your period.

Don’t be embarrassed to talk about the discomfort you have with other friends and family members—you may be able to pick up some remedies to relieve the pain each month. And make sure you stick to a healthy exercise and diet regimen all month long, as this has been associated with easing period pain symptoms like menstrual cramps.

10 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. Barcikowska Z, Rajkowska-Labon E, Grzybowska ME, Hansdorfer-Korzon R, Zorena K. Inflammatory markers in dysmenorrhea and therapeutic optionsInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(4):1191. doi:10.3390/ijerph17041191

  2. NHS. Period pain.

  3. Kids Health from Nemours. Talking to your child about periods.

  4. Medline Plus. Period pain.

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dysmenorrhea.

  6. Mayo Clinic. Menstrual cramps.

  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dysmenorrhea.

  8. University of Utah Health. Period pain: When to go to the doctor.

  9. Women's Health Concern. Period pain.

  10. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dysmenorrhea: Painful periods.

By Colleen Travers
Colleen Travers writes about health, fitness, travel, parenting, and women’s lifestyle for various publications and brands.