Most women will experience some degree of painful periods, or menstrual cramps, during their lifetime. Although exact numbers are not known, some studies suggest that around a quarter to half of all women regularly experience uncomfortable or painful periods.

Why do painful periods occur?

Painful periods, or dysmenorrhoea, refers to pain you feel during menstruation. This pain can range from being mild to severe, and is usually felt in your lower abdomen around your uterus. In more severe cases, painful periods can also be felt in your lower back and thighs.

How common are painful periods?

Research indicates that menstrual cramps are very common in women, and that most women will feel some kind of pain during their periods. However, in about one in every 10 women, the pain is more severe to the point that they are unable to do daily activities.

What are the types of painful periods?

There are two types of menstrual cramps:

  • Primary dysmenorrhoea: the most common type of dysmenorrhoea, these are painful periods that don’t indicate an underlying disease, and are typically fairly mild. These kind of menstrual cramps usually last the duration of your childbearing years, from your first period until the onset of menopause.
  • Secondary dysmenorrhoea: these are painful periods where the pain is caused by an underlying condition, such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease or fibroids. This is the less common of the 2 types, and is more common in women over the age of 30 but who have not yet reached menopause.

What causes painful periods?

Painful periods happen as a result of your body’s hormones stimulating the uterus to shed its lining each month. When the lining of your uterus contracts, the blood vessels lining the uterus are compressed, which temporarily cuts off the blood supply. When this happens, the tissues of your uterus release chemicals that trigger pain in your brain, resulting in painful periods. At the same time, another set of chemicals known as prostaglandins encourage the uterus to contract more, which results in more pain.

The variation in painful periods between women is thought to exist because some women develop a build-up of prostaglandins, which make their contractions – and therefore pain – stronger. Other researchers believe that some women’s uteruses are oversensitive to prostaglandins, which can also result in pain. With secondary dysmenorrhoea, there is usually another condition that is causing the painful periods, such as endometriosis or an infection.

What are the symptoms of painful periods?

The main symptom of painful periods is pain in your lower abdomen area. In most cases, your pain can vary with each period. Usually, pain lasts from 12 hours up to 3 days in some cases. As you become older, cramps tend to become less painful, especially after you’ve had a child.

Symptoms for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea are similar, but the main differences are that with secondary dysmenorrhoea, pain begins a few days before your period starts, and painful periods tend to become more severe over time and last longer than usual. Symptoms for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea are similar and include:

  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • backache
  • a headache or migraine
  • bloating
  • mood
  • tiredness

The main differences are that with secondary dysmenorrhoea, pain begins a few days before your period starts, and painful periods tend to become more severe over time and last longer than usual.

Other symptoms that can indicate an underlying condition indicated by painful periods include:

  • Irregular periods.
  • Bleeding between periods.
  • Pain between periods.
  • Heavier bleeding.
  • Vaginal discharge.
  • Pain during sex.