Dysmenorrhea, or painful menstruation, is a medical condition experienced by many women at some point during their lives. The condition is characterized by extremely painful and unpleasant cramps which occur over the course of a menstrual period. These cramps can be so intense that a woman is unable to function because of the strength and duration of the cramping. While dysmenorrhea is not usually regarded as life threatening, it can be extremely frustrating, and there are some options to treat it which should be considered by women who struggle with painful menstruation.
The menstrual period is used to shed the lining of the uterus if an egg is not fertilized. The process is triggered by the production of prostaglandins, compounds which encourage the uterus to contract. This cuts off the blood supply to the lining, causing it to die, while also expelling the dead tissue. After the period is over, the lining will regrow to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy. Prostaglandin production does appear to be linked with painful periods, since high levels seem to be associated with more cramping, but it's not the only cause.
In secondary dysmenorrhea, the condition is caused by an underlying medical problem, which could include a congenital abnormality in the reproductive tract, or a condition such as endometriosis. The condition usually appears later in life, as a woman's body changes and these changes cause a problem. In these situations, addressing the underlying condition can often clear up the dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea has no underlying cause, and usually onset occurs early in life.
Women who are active tend to be less prone to painful periods, as are women who eat a balanced diet and avoid smoking. The size of the uterus seems to be a factor in some women. When women experience painful menstruation, they sometimes find that changing physical position helps to address the cramps, and it is also possible to take drugs to manage the pain and inflammation which are associated with severe cramping.
If dysmenorrhea is experienced, a doctor should be consulted to determine whether it is primary or secondary. In the case of primary dysmenorrhea, lifestyle changes can sometimes resolve the problem. It is also possible to use hormonal birth control to manage the period, making it predictable and often less painful as well. A gynecologist can provide support and information as well as testing to explore possible causes for painful periods.