The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines dysmenorrhea as severe pain during menstruation that keeps women from normal activity. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) adds that although some pain during a period is normal, excessive pain is not. Painful menstruation is the leading cause of lost time from school and work among women in their teens and 20s.
There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary.
The Cleveland Clinic says primary dysmenorrhea is common menstrual cramps. Cramps usually begin one to two years after a woman starts her period. Common menstrual cramps usually become less painful with age and may stop entirely after childbirth.
ACOG says secondary dysmenorrhea has causes other than menstruation. It may begin later in life than primary dysmenorrhea. This type of pain often lasts longer than normal cramps.
Mayo Clinic lists symptoms of menstrual cramps as dull, throbbing or cramping pain in the lower abdomen; pain that radiates to the lower back and thighs; nausea and vomiting; loose stools, sweating and dizziness.
What causes this pain? According to ACOG, the uterine muscles contracts during a period when prostaglandins are produced. Sometimes when it contracts, cramping pain is felt.
Prostaglandins are chemicals made by the lining of the uterus. The level of these chemicals increases before a period, is very high at the start of a period and decreases during menstruation. This is why pain tends to lessen after the first few days of the period.
The Cleveland Clinic says two of the most common causes of second dysmenorrhea are endometriosis and fibroids. Other causes are pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical stenosis (narrowing of the uterine opening), and adenomyosis (tissue lining the uterus begins growing into the muscular walls of the uterus).
There are several ways to treat dysmenorrhea. NIH says doctors may prescribe antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, prescription anti-inflammatory medicines and prescription pain relievers.
ACOG adds NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), block the body from making prostaglandins and makes cramps less severe.