Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(2):292

Why do some women have painful periods?

Most women have some crampy pain with their periods, especially as teenagers. The pain often is low in the pelvis and starts just before your period or at the beginning of your period. It often lasts one to three days. The pain can be bad enough to keep you from doing things you normally do.

Painful periods usually do not mean that there is anything seriously wrong. Sometimes, though, painful periods can be caused by an infection or cysts. Pain also can be caused by a condition called endometriosis (say: en-doe-me-tree-oh-sis). This happens when the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus.

How are painful periods treated?

The most common way to treat painful periods is to take a medicine called ibuprofen (some brand names: Motrin, Advil). You can buy this medicine without a prescription. If this medicine does not work for you, your doctor might want you to take a stronger dose that you have to get with a prescription. Your doctor might want you to try using birth control pills or a birth control shot (Depo-Provera). These medicines can make your periods less painful. You also can try using heating pads and some nutritional supplements, such as vitamin B, vitamin E, and fish oil.

Many women notice that their periods are less painful after they have had a baby.

What if these treatments don’t work?

If you don’t feel better after taking ibuprofen or birth control pills, your doctor might want to do an ultrasound test. He or she also may want you to see another doctor who can do a minor surgery called laparoscopy (say: lap-uh-rah-ska-pee). These are ways for doctors to see if you have endometriosis. Ask your doctor about other treatments that may help.

How can I tell if I have a more serious problem?

Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Your painful periods started later in life.

  • You have pain at times other than the first couple of days of your period.

  • You have unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding.

  • Medicine does not make your pain go away.

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