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Pain in and around the abdomen and pelvic area during your period can affect your ability to enjoy everyday activities.

Summary introduction

Around four in every five women have period pain at some time in their life. Everyone experiences pain differently, but persistent discomfort each month could be a sign of something that can be treated.

Period pain is also known as dysmenorrhoea or menstrual cramps.

Causes of period pain

The muscles of the womb (uterus) contract and relax in waves during the menstrual cycle. This helps the lining of the womb shed away, resulting in the blood loss seen during a period. These contractions can cause period pain and are triggered by hormones called prostaglandins.

The exact cause of most period pain is unknown. It may be that some women have a greater build-up of prostaglandins than others, causing stronger and more painful contractions.

There are two types of period pain - primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea.

Primary dysmenorrhoea

This includes the following symptoms:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Cramps spreading to the back of the thighs
  • Intense spasms of pain
  • Dull constant pain

It's most common in your teens and early twenties.

Secondary dysmenorrhoea

This is a sign of an underlying medical condition and can also include these symptoms:

  • Severe pain
  • Heavy periods
  • Irregular periods

It's more likely in your late twenties onwards.

Menstrual cramps differ from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) discomfort.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

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Conditions related to period pain

Conditions than can cause secondary dysmenorrhoea include:

  • Endometriosis – the lining of your womb starts to grow in other places, such as your fallopian tubes
  • Fibroids – non-cancerous growths in and around your womb
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease – infection of the womb, fallopian tubes and ovaries
  • Adenomyosis – the lining of your womb grows through the walls of your womb

Period pain can also be caused by an intrauterine devices, such as the coil.

Getting a diagnosis for period pain

You should also see your GP if period pain starts to suddenly worsen, or you have any of these symptoms:

  • Bleeding between periods
  • Vaginal discharge that's discoloured or strong-smelling
  • Pain during sex

They may perform an internal examination to check for underlying conditions.


If your period pain has no obvious cause, your GP may refer you to a gynaecologist who may carry out:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Ultrasound scan –uses sound waves to form images of the inside of your body
  • Laparoscopy – a device is inserted via a small incision in your abdomen to look for underlying conditions

Treatments for period pain

You can try ibuprofen and aspirin for period pain relief. Paracetamol may not be as effective. Your doctor may prescribe a painkiller, such as naproxen or codeine, if over-the-counter medicines don't work.

You could also try:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Exercise (walking, swimming or cycling)
  • Warm baths or showers
  • Lightly massaging your lower abdomen
  • Relaxation techniques, such as yoga
  • TENS (transcutaneous electronic stimulation) machine

Certain birth control options also help with period pain:

  • Combined contraceptive pill
  • Contraceptive implants or injections
  • The Mirena intrauterine system (IUS)

Enquire about treatments at your local Spire hospital

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