What causes common menstrual cramps?

Dr. Howard S. Smith
Pain Medicine Specialist

Menstrual cramps are generally categorized as “primary dysmenorrhea,” which is caused by the elevated production of prostaglandins, hormones produced by the uterus that cause it to contract. When you have strong uterine contractions, the blood supply to the uterus is momentarily shutdown, depriving the uterine muscle of oxygen and setting up the cycle of menstrual contractions and pain. There are some studies showing that women with severe menstrual cramps have stronger uterine contractions than women do when giving birth. If you suffer with more severe menstrual cramping called “secondary dysmenorrhea,” it may be the result of a more serious gynecological problem, such as a uterine fibroid tumor, endometriosis, pelvic infection, or an intrauterine device.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Painful menstrual cramping can make a woman's monthly periods pure misery. Watch this video as Dr. Oz and gynecologist Dr. Samantha Pfeifer discuss why menstrual cramps can be painful.

Menstrual cramps or pains are often associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), though technically, they're two different things. Many women with PMS have completely pain-free periods and many women who have severe cramping have no premenstrual symptoms at all. During the menstrual cycle the uterus lining produces the hormone prostaglandin, which causes the uterus to contract, sometimes painfully. Some women produce higher than normal amounts of this hormone, causing severe cramps, while others produce normal amounts but are more sensitive to the effects of prostaglandin. Menstrual pain usually includes mild to severe cramping in the lower abdomen, back, or thighs. In any case, if you're suffering from menstrual cramps, you know it, and you're probably looking for relief.

Cramping during menstration can have many causes, ranging from normal uterine contractions to fibroids to adenomyosis.

Menstrual cramps, or pain with your period, are caused by contractions of the uterus. When the uterus contracts strongly it can cause a decrease in blood flow to the muscle, which in turn causes pain.

Cramping during menstruation occurs as the body is sheds lining of the uterus because the woman has not become pregnant.

Period cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, occur when you make too many prostaglandins. These hormone-like substances are made in your egg sac, which releases an egg from your ovary, and they also get produced in the lining of your uterus. When the prostaglandins get secreted, they travel through the bloodstream, get to the uterus, and induce cramping. When it squeezes hard enough, the uterus contracts so hard that it can temporarily cut off its own blood supply. The body reads this lack of oxygen delivery to those tissues as pain. Some women’s bodies overproduce prostaglandins, while other women seem to be hypersensitive to them. In other words, some girls are lucky enough to experience no cramps at all, and others regularly suffer for three to seven days.

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A few years ago, we wrote YOU: The Owner’s Manual, which taught people about the inner workings of their bodies—and how to keep them running strong. But you know what? There’s a big difference...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.