Most women experience period pain at some point in their lives.
Period pain – or dysmenorrhoea – is usually felt as painful muscle cramps in the lower tummy, which can sometimes spread to the back and thighs. Sometimes the pain comes in intense spasms, while at other times the pain may be dull but more constant.
The pain usually starts when your bleeding begins, and normally lasts for 48-72 hours.
Read more about the symptoms of painful periods.
Why it happens
Most cases of period pain occur when the muscular wall of the womb contracts and presses against nearby blood vessels, briefly cutting off the oxygen supply to the womb and triggering pain.
Read more about the causes of painful periods.
How common is it?
Period pain is extremely common. Some studies suggest up to 90% of menstruating women experience pain and discomfort during their period.
It’s difficult to categorise period pain as it can affect every woman differently. But one study of more than 400 women with period pain found symptoms were moderately painful in around 20% of women, and severe in 2% of cases.
In another study, up to 14% of women reported frequently being unable to go to work because of period pain.
However, period pain that isn’t caused by an underlying condition tends to improve as you get older. Many women also notice an improvement after they have had children.
What to do
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 a number of self-help techniques which may help, such as applying heat or gentle exercise.
Find out how you can manage period pain at home.
If your period pain is severe, visit your GP to check that no medical condition is causing your pain.
Symptoms of painful periods
Causes of painful periods
Diagnosing painful periods caused by a medical condition
Most women who have period pain find it’s 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 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 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 for period pain, your GP will 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 qualified health professional, 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. You’ll also be asked if you’d like to have a friend or relative present, or another health professional, such as the practice nurse, to act as a chaperone.
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.
- a urine or blood test
- pelvic ultrasound – an ultrasound scan uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your body; it is a painless procedure, and will allow your specialist to detect any abnormalities in your reproductive organs
- laparoscopy – under general anaesthetic, a small cut is made in your abdomen through which a fibro-optic telescope (laparoscope) is inserted; it can be used to look at your internal organs, as well as take samples of tissue (a biopsy)
- hysteroscopy – this test allows your specialist to look inside your womb using a fibro-optic telescope, which is carefully passed through your vagina and into the womb to look for any abnormalities
Treating painful periods
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 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).
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’re not sure if NSAIDs are suitable, speak to your GP or pharmacist.
Other painkilling medicines
If NSAIDs aren’t suitable for you or you don’t 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 doesn’t reduce pain as effectively as an NSAID.
If you’re 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 help to reduce the amount of prostaglandin chemicals your body releases.
If the lining of the womb is thinner, the muscles don’t have to contract as much when it needs to shed away as part of your monthly menstrual cycle. Your period will also be lighter.
If you are not able to take the combined contraceptive pill for whatever reason, contraceptive implants or injections are good alternatives.
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.
- stop smoking – smoking is thought to increase your risk of period pain
- exercise – although you may not want to exercise while you’re having a painful period, keeping active can help to reduce pain; try some gentle swimming, walking or cycling
- heat – you could try applying either a heat pad or a hot water bottle to reduce pain; make sure you don’t use boiling water as you could 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 through sticky pads, placed on your skin, that stimulate the nerves in your pelvic area and help to block pain; TENS machines are widely available from pharmacies and can be used at home
Period pain caused by a medical condition
If you have not managed to control your pain after three months of treatment with NSAIDs and/or the combined contraceptive pill, your GP may refer you to see a specialist for further investigations to rule out an underlying 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 (PID) may require antibiotics to treat the infection, while fibroids may need to be surgically removed. Read more information about:
Although you may be prescribed painkillers to take in the meantime, it’s important to treat your underlying condition.