Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea)


Many women have pain with their periods, especially when they are in their teens. In most cases, menstrual pain does not mean a more serious problem, although sometimes it can be associated with endometriosis or uterine fibroids, non-cancerous tumors in the uterus.
The medical term for menstrual pain is primary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea usually starts 2 - 3 years after the first period, as a woman begins to ovulate regularly. Pain usually starts a day or two before menstrual flow, and may continue through the first 2 days of the period. Often, pain gets better as a woman gets older, or after she has a child.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by underlying conditions, such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Signs and Symptoms:

Symptoms and degree of pain vary, but they may include the following:
  • Abdominal cramping or dull ache that moves to lower back and legs
  • Heavy menstrual flow
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Frequent urination
  • Vomiting (not common)

What Causes It?:

Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by strong contractions of the uterus triggered by prostaglandins, chemicals in the body that are involved in inflammation and pain. Generally, the higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more menstrual pain.
Secondary dysmenorrhea can be caused by:
  • Endometriosis, inflammation of the lining of the uterus
  • Blood and tissue passing through a narrow cervix
  • Uterine fibroid or ovarian cyst
  • Infections of the uterus
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Intrauterine device (IUD)


Acupuncture has become a popular treatment for menstrual pain. The National Institutes of Health recommend acupuncture for menstrual pain. In a well-designed study of 43 women with menstrual pain, women treated with acupuncture had less pain.
Acupuncturists treat people with dysmenorrhea based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of energy (called qi) located in various meridians. In the case of dysmenorrhea, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the liver and spleen meridians. Moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) is often added to enhance needling treatment.
Acupressure also works to relieve pain. A study of 216 female students found that acupressure was  better than placebo at reducing pain.