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Menstruation: Severe Cramps (Dysmenorrhea)


An in-depth report on the causes, treatment, and prevention of menstrual cramps.

Alternative Names

Cramps (Menstrual); Endometrial Ablation; Menstrual Disorders

Menstrual Disorders

Dysmenorrhea is severe, frequent cramping during menstruation. Cramps occur from contractions in the uterus, which are part of the menstrual process. The condition is usually referred to as primary or secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea. With primary dysmenorrhea, muscle contractions are often normal and the cause of the pain is some underlying biologic factor that only affects menstrual cramping. About half of menstruating women experience primary dysmenorrhea. Onset usually occurs two to three years after the periods have started. The pain typically develops when the bleeding starts and continues for 32 to 48 hours.

Secondary dysmenorrhea. Secondary dysmenorrhea is menstrually related pain that accompanies another medical or physical condition, usually endometriosis or pelvic abnormalities.

Other Menstrual Disorders

Menorrhagia (Heavy Bleeding). During normal menstruation the average woman loses about 2 ounces (60 ml) of blood or less. If bleeding is significantly heavier, it is called menorrhagia, which occurs in 9% to 14% of all women and can be caused by a number of factors. Women often overestimate the amount of blood lost during their periods. However, women should consult their physician if any of the following occurs:

  • Soaking through at least one pad or tampon every hour for several hours.
  • Heavy periods that regularly last 10 or more days.
  • Bleeding between periods or during pregnancy. Spotting or light bleeding between periods is common in girls just starting menstruation and sometimes during ovulation in young adult women, but consultation with a physician is nevertheless recommended.

Note: Clot formation is fairly common during heavy bleeding and is not a cause for concern.

Amenorrhea (Absence of Menstruation). Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation. There are two categories: primary amenorrhea and secondary amenorrhea. Such terms are used only to describe the timing of menstrual cessation; they do not indicate any cause nor do they suggest any other information.

  • Primary amenorrhea occurs when a girl does not even start to menstruate. Girls who show no signs of sexual development (breast development and pubic hair) by age 14 should be evaluated. Girls who do not have their periods by two years after sexual development should also be checked. Any girl who does not have her period by age 16 should be evaluated for primary amenorrhea.
  • Secondary amenorrhea occurs when periods that were previously regular become absent for at least three cycles.

Oligomenorrhea (Light or Infrequent Menstruation). Oligomenorrhea is a condition in which menstrual cycles are infrequent. It is very common in early puberty and not usually worrisome. When girls first menstruate they often do not have regular cycles for a couple of years. Even healthy cycles in adult women can vary by a few days from month to month. In some women, periods may occur every three weeks and in others, every five weeks. Flow also varies and can be heavy or light. Skipping a period and then having a heavy flow may occur; this is most likely due to missed ovulation rather than a miscarriage. Women should be concerned when periods come less than 21 days or more than three months apart, or if they last more than ten days. Such events may indicate ovulation problems.

Premenstrual Syndrome. In general, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a set of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that occur during the last week of the luteal phase (a week before menstruation) in most cycles. The symptoms should typically resolve within four days after bleeding starts and not start until at least day 13 in the cycle. Women may begin to experience premenstrual syndrome symptoms at any time during their reproductive years. Once established, the symptoms tend to remain fairly constant until menopause, although they can vary from cycle to cycle. About 100 symptoms have been identified with the premenstrual phase.


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