Period pain, also called dysmenorrhoea, is common. It can prevent some women from doing their normal activities. However, there are many ways to manage painful periods.
Causes of period pain
Period pain is often a normal but uncomfortable part of a woman’s menstrual cycle. It’s caused by chemicals called prostaglandins which are made in the lining of the womb (uterus) and trigger muscle contractions during a period. This type of pain is called primary dysmenorrhoea and often develops within 6 to 12 months of a girl's first period.
Secondary dysmenorrhoea is period pain caused by an underlying medical condition such as:
- pelvic inflammatory disease
- adenomyosis (a condition where the lining of the uterus grows into the muscular wall of the uterus)
- a problem with an intrauterine device (IUD)
When should I see a doctor?
You might have sharp pain or a dull ache in your lower abdomen. If it lasts just for the first 1 or 2 days of your period it is probably normal. See a doctor if:
- the pain lasts for longer than 2 days
- it doesn’t go away when you take the contraceptive pill or painkillers
- it stops you from doing your normal daily activities
- it hurts when you go to the toilet
- you get pain in the pelvic area when you don’t have a period
- sex is painful
- you have an intrauterine device (IUD)
Treatment of period pain
There is a range of medicines you can take to help with period pain.
Pain relief medication: Anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen, mefanamic acid or naproxen stop the body from producing prostaglandins. They are available over the counter from a pharmacy but they may not be suitable for everyone so speak to your pharmacist for advice first. You can also take paracetamol for mild cramps. Stronger pain killers containing codeine are only available with a prescription from a doctor.
Other treatments: Some women find that a heat pack, gentle exercise, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or acupuncture helps control the pain.
Living with period pain
To help you manage period pain in the longer term, your doctor might prescribe the combined oral contraceptive pill or another hormonal form of contraception such as a vaginal ring, implant or a hormone-releasing intra-uterine device (e.g. Mirena). These reduce the amount of prostaglandins released during your period and make your periods lighter.
You could also consider taking nutritional supplements such as magnesium, vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin E, pyridoxine or fish oil.
Quitting smoking and reducing the amount of alcohol you drink may reduce period pain.
It is a good idea to keep a diary of your pain, bleeding and any other symptoms to show your doctor. This will help them diagnose whether there is an underlying medical cause for your period pain.
You can read more about managing period pain at:
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Last reviewed: March 2020