Overview of Dysmenorrhea

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for painful and/or disabling menstrual cramps. This condition occurs mainly in women in their teens and early twenties and tends to get better with age. This problem also tends to run in families. About 50% of women experience some degree of dysmenorrhea and up to 10% have severe enough cramps to keep them from work or school for up to 3 days per month.

The cause of dysmenorrhea is not entirely understood. It is thought to be linked to the release of uterine prostaglandins, chemicals that stimulate contractions of the uterus and the shedding of the uterine lining. Women with severe cramps appear to produce more of these prostaglandins than women with mild or no cramps.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Once a month (cyclic), lower abdominal pain, mild to severe in intensity.
  • The pain is described as crampy, stabbing, dull or aching in quality, usually occurring at the onset of bleeding or hours before the onset of bleeding and can persist for up to 3 or 4 days.
  • Pain can radiate to inner thighs, groin, low back or buttocks.
  • Some women experience additional symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, feelings of dizziness, fatigue and headache.


  • Smokers tend to have more risk for dysmenorrhea than nonsmokers; if you smoke, quit.
  • Epidemiological studies show that overweight women are more at risk for dysmenorrhea; losing weight may help reduce the severity of cramps.
  • Medications can both prevent and treat painful cramps.
  • Hormonal methods of birth control and ”anti-prostaglandin” medications like ibuprofen or naproxen started 48 hours before the onset of menses may prevent cramps.


The treatment for dysmenorrhea is aimed at reducing prostaglandins and reducing menstrual flow and duration. If a woman needs protection from pregnancy then hormonal methods of birth control (like the pill, the ring or the patch) is the treatment of choice. The hormonal contraceptive methods decrease dysmenorrhea by suppressing ovulation and reducing menstrual flow. Hormonal methods of birth control also limit the build up of the uterine lining, which decreases prostaglandin production.

Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen reduce prostaglandin production and thus reduce menstrual cramps. The combination of hormonal birth control with anti-prostaglandin medication can be very effective in both preventing and treating menstrual cramps.

If medications do not help, further evaluation may be necessary.

How We Can Help

  • If you would like to be seen by our medical staff, please contact our Appointment Desk to schedule an appointment.
  • Also, our Advice Nurse service is available at no charge for all UC Davis students to discuss health concerns and the need for medical care.