Dysmenorrhea refers to pain and cramping during menses that, when severe, may interfere with normal functioning. It is the most common menstrual complaint, with 50%-90% of women worldwide reporting painful menstruation; severe, sometimes incapacitating, symptoms occur in 2%-29% of studied populations.[1]

Primary dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain that occurs in the absence of underlying pelvic pathology) is thought to be related to the release of prostaglandins during menstruation, which can cause excessive and prolonged uterine contractions. These contractions can lead to myometrial ischemia. The pain begins 24-48 hours before menses and then subsides within 12-72 hours. The pain is typically midline, but may also radiate to the back or thighs. Accompanying symptoms (related to prostaglandin-induced sequelae) may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, and respiratory difficulties. The symptoms of dysmenorrhea typically begin within 2 years of menarche. The prevalence diminishes with age.

Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by pelvic disease such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, pelvic adhesions, and cervical stenosis. The pain of secondary dysmenorrhea usually begins earlier in the menstrual cycle and continues beyond the end of menses. Further symptoms may be present depending on the underlying pathology. While secondary causes can manifest at any age, they typically present well after menarche, often as late as the fourth or fifth decade of life.

Risk Factors

The following factors are associated with risk for primary dysmenorrhea. Further studies are needed to firmly establish these risk factors, due to the presence of confounding variables and possible selection bias.[2] Risk factors for secondary dysmenorrhea depend on the underlying pelvic pathology.

Age. The most intense symptoms occur during adolescence and typically decrease with age.

Body mass index less than 20 or greater than 25.

Heavy, prolonged, or irregular menses.

History of sexual abuse or assault.


Longer, irregular or heavy menses (or any combination of those three).

Family history.


Lower parity.

In addition to the above factors, psychological factors, miscarriage, pelvic inflammatory disease, premenstrual syndrome, sterilization, female genital cutting (“female circumcision”), and work in cold environments[3] ,[4] may also be associated with risk. Oral contraceptives, previous, pregnancy and younger age at first birth are considered protective.[1]


Primary dysmenorrhea is a diagnosis of exclusion. A complete history including menstrual, gynecologic, psychosocial, and dietary factors and physical examination are necessary for all patients. Abdominal, pelvic, and rectal examinations may reveal underlying disorders. More extensive evaluation may not be necessary in many cases, particularly when the history and physical support the diagnosis of primary dysmenorrhea and the pain responds to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or oral contraceptives.

Laboratory testing may include pregnancy testing, sexually transmitted disease evaluation, urinalysis, and complete blood count.

Cultures for gonorrhea and chlamydia are generally indicated, but negative cultures do not exclude pelvic infection.

Imaging studies may include pelvic and vaginal ultrasound.

Laparoscopy is not typically indicated, as the history, examination, and imaging typically identify the cause of pain. However, this procedure may be indicated for the diagnosis of and treatment of endometriosis and as therapy for fibroids, adhesions, ovarian cysts, and other abdominal or pelvic pathologies.


Primary Dysmenorrhea

Primary dysmenorrhea is best treated with a multidisciplinary approach that may include medical, lifestyle, and nutritional interventions.

Nonpharmacologic Therapies

Nutritional interventions, such as a low-fat, vegan diet, are described below (see Nutritional Considerations).

Regular exercise decreases blood estrogen concentrations,[5] which would be expected to decrease the risk of dysmenorrhea. The effects of exercise on stress level and on weight are also plausible mechanisms for decreased pain. In unblinded trials, women who exercise appear to have less severe menstrual symptoms, compared with women who do not exercise.[6]

Smoking cessation may be helpful.

Heat applied to the lower abdomen may be as effective as ibuprofen and more effective than acetaminophen.[7] ,[8] Heat may also improve the efficacy of other treatments.

Acupuncture[9] and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)[10] may be beneficial. Limited evidence from controlled trials indicates that acupuncture produces significantly better pain relief compared with sham acupuncture and decreases the use of pain medications. Acupressure provides pain relief similar to that of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) when compared with sham acupressure treatment.[11]

Medical Therapies

NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen) are often effective in treating the pain of primary (and occasionally secondary) dysmenorrhea. Treatment is more effective if begun prior to the expected onset of symptoms and continued throughout menses.

Oral contraceptives are often effective and are commonly used for pain that is refractory to NSAID therapy. Other forms of contraceptives (patches, vaginal ring, and injectable medroxyprogesterone) may also provide symptom relief. Oral contraceptives and an NSAID may be combined if monotherapy with each of these is not effective.

Intrauterine devices with levonorgestrel are also helpful, although devices without hormones may aggravate symptoms.

Calcium channel blockers, nitroglycerin, and nitric oxide, agents that block uterine contractions and other pharmaceuticals are under investigation.

Women who do not respond to therapy within 3-4 cycles should undergo reevaluation for the cause of symptoms. This next step typically includes diagnostic laparoscopy.

Secondary Dysmenorrhea

Treatment is based on the underlying pathology. NSAIDs and oral contraceptive pills may be useful in some patients.

Nutritional Considerations

Diet therapies have not been extensively studied. However, evidence supports a role for diet changes that alter estrogen concentrations or estrogen activity. These interventions may also involve the inhibition of prostaglandins (e.g., PGE2) that cause the uterine muscle contraction and ischemia.[12] Diet can also play a role by helping to suppress the inflammation that contributes to pain perception in patients with dysmenorrhea.

A low-fat,vegandiet has been shown to reduce dysmenorrhea symptoms. High-fiber, plant-based diets are associated with reduced blood estrogen concentrations, presumably because fiber interrupts the enterohepatic circulation of estrogens. In a placebo-controlled, crossover trial, a low-fat, vegan diet was shown to increase serum concentrations of sex-hormone-binding globulin and reduce duration and severity of menstrual pain.[13]

Avoiding animal products can be helpful because they increase estrogen concentrations[14] and both the arachidonic acid and saturated fat they contain activate inflammatory pathways through upregulating NFκB.[15] Patients with dysmenorrhea have also been found to have higher blood levels of arachidonic acid-derived prostaglandins such as PGE2 and PGF2α.[16] A systematic review of studies on diet and dysmenorrhea concluded from observational and clinical trials that a higher dietary ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids are protective against dysmenorrhea[17] by reducing pro-inflammatory prostaglandin formation.[17] ,[18] ,[19] ,[20]

Maintain a healthy weight. Although mixed, research has revealed that being underweight or overweight increases the risk for dysmenorrhea. In one study of roughly 10,000 women, changing from being underweight to overweight or vice versa increased the risk for dysmenorrhea by 30%. Researchers speculate this is due to the associations between underweight and overweight status and menstrual irregularities, and the association of the latter with dysmenorrhea.[21]


Vegetarian diet, low-fat, nondairy. See Basic Diet Orders.

Exercise prescription.

Smoking cessation.

Counseling on stress reduction techniques.

What to Tell the Family

A patient making diet changes to improve symptoms of dysmenorrhea will benefit from the support of family members, who are likely to find that the same diet changes help them with weight control and other health issues.


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Last updated: July 16, 2018