What Is Primary Dysmenorrhea?

Most women around the world experience menstrual cramps from time to time. It seems to go with being a woman. However, women experiencing frequent and severe cramps during the first days of their monthly cycle may be suffering from a condition called primary dysmenorrhea.

You’ve probably heard of menstrual cramping but may not have heard of it called by its scientific name – dysmenorrhea. In the simplest terms, dysmenorrhea is a condition whereby a woman experiences severe and painful menstrual cramps and other pain associated with having a period. Dysmenorrhea falls into two categories: primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea often begins a couple of years after a young woman starts having a menstrual cycle and usually lasts her entire lifetime and has no obvious physical cause. The pain is severe and often happens frequently during a cycle. Doctors agree the severe pain is caused by abnormal contractions of the uterus and believe up to 90% of all women experience this condition at some point.

Why would the uterus have such abnormal contractions? Doctors believe they’re caused by a chemical imbalance. The chemicals in question - prostaglandin and arachidonic acid - actually control uterine contractions to expel the lining of the uterus during menstruation.

You may be faced with frequent severe cramping in the lower abdomen during your monthly cycle. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, lightheadedness, or headaches. Expect pains to begin as soon as menstruation begins, become worse as flow is the heaviest (first two days of the cycle), and then ease off.

If you experience these symptoms, make an appointment with your gynecologist. They will be able to diagnose primary dysmenorrhea but will want to rule out other medical conditions. You can expect a pelvic exam, possibly an ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), laparoscopy, or a hysteroscopy to make a proper diagnosis.

Treatment will be based on your age, overall health, and medical history. They’ll also base it on the extent of your condition, how well you tolerate medication, and how they expect the condition to progress. They will also take your preferences into consideration since you’re the one who is experiencing the problem.

They may suggest taking a prostaglandin inhibitor to help reduce pain, an oral contraceptive so you don’t ovulate, progesterone (which is a hormonal treatment), or may make recommendations to change your diet.

Women who experience primary dysmenorrhea can be in so much pain that they have to miss school or work. They are also limited to the activities they can participate in.

Primary dysmenorrhea interrupts women’s lives more often than many women will admit. If you’re in that group and taking over-the-counter pain relievers doesn’t help, you may want to see your gynecologist. They will be able to determine the best course of treatment to ease the pain and help you experience the freedom of life without the painful symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea.