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Painful periods

4-minute read

Many women will experience some form of pain during their period. It is very common in young women, and the pain tends to ease as women get older.

There are two types of period pain (also known as dysmenorrhoea). These types are primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhoea

This is the common type of period pain experienced by teenagers and young women where there is no underlying condition in the uterus (womb). It’s thought to be caused by raised levels of prostaglandins, which make the uterus contract more than normal.

It is not fully understood why primary dysmenorrhoea happens, but it is thought that natural chemicals produced by the body (called prostaglandins) collect in the uterus (womb) lining.

These chemicals help the uterus to shed the lining during a period by making the walls of the uterus contract. Women who experience period pain may have higher levels of prostaglandins, making the contractions feel painful.

Cramps are the most common symptom; with some women experiencing them a day before their period starts. The cramps usually last between 1 to 3 days, but this can vary with each period.

Secondary dysmenorrhoea

This type of pain is caused by an underlying condition affecting the uterus (womb). Conditions that can cause painful periods include endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease and adenomyosis.

You may not be aware of any problems, but if you have noticed a change to your period pain (such as it feels more painful, or lasts longer than normal), you may have secondary dysmenorrhoea. It is unlikely that a woman under 30 years old will be affected by secondary dysmenorrhoea.

Other signs may include bleeding between periods, pain during sex, irregular periods, or pain (like period pain) between periods. You should make an appointment to see your doctor.

How it feels

Period pains are caused by menstruation, and most commonly cause a pain in the lower abdominal area. Sometimes this pain spreads towards the back and thigh areas.

The pain may feel like sharp twinges or a constant, dull pain. Everyone is different. Some women may not experience any period pains.

As well as the discomfort and aches, there are also a number of other symptoms that you may experience during your period, such as:

All symptoms can vary each month and can usually be treated at home. If you find that any of these symptoms are very severe, you may want to contact your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for advice.

How long does it last?

Period pain varies between women, although it’s most common to experience period pain at the beginning of your period, rather than during the middle or towards the end of it.

Some women don’t experience any period pain, while others may be in pain for the duration of their period and possibly before it starts and a few days after.

Since period pain is caused by the menstruation process, most women find that their pains are worst when their bleeding is at its heaviest.

Painful periods often ease with age, and a lot of women find period pains get better after they have given birth.


If the pain is bothering you, see your doctor. They will examine you and test for conditions that may cause painful periods. There are effective treatments, including the contraceptive pill and Mirena intrauterine device.

Looking after yourself

You can help reduce period pain by trying the following:

  • Gentle exercise, such as swimming or cycling, is good to help ease the pain.
  • Stretching exercises, such as yoga or pilates, can help reduce your feelings of stress and tension. They can also increase your circulation and flexibility, help ease cramps, and improve sleep patterns.
  • Apply a heat pad or hot water bottle to the painful area, or try having a warm bath or shower.
  • Massage the painful area gently.
  • If you are in pain, get advice from your pharmacist or doctor on medicines or treatments you can take.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your painful periods, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2019

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