- Dysmenorrhea is painful cramping, usually in the lower abdomen, occurring shortly before and/or during menstruation.
- Primary dysmenorrhea occurs in the absence of any identifiable underlying pelvic pathology.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea is associated with underlying pelvic pathology (such as endometriosis, fibroids, or endometrial polyps).
- Dysmenorrhea occurs in ovulatory cycles. Prostaglandins are released during endometrial cell lysis, which occurs just prior to menstruation, and have a direct effect on the endometrium and surrounding tissues, resulting in the signs and symptoms of dysmenorrhea.
- Women with dysmenorrhea have increased uterine activity, resulting in increased resting tone, increased strength and frequency of contractions and /or dysrhythmic contractions.
- Dysmenorrhea usually begins 6 to 12 months after menarche and only occurs with ovulatory cycles.
- Primary dysmenorrhea is most common in young women and less so in women beyond their late 20's. This decrease in incidence and severity may be related to pregnancy because, during late pregnancy, uterine adrenergic nerves virtually disappear and only a portion regenerate after childbirth.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea is painful menstruation caused by another condition, such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids, or incorrect IUD insertion.
- Dysmenorrhea is the most common gynaecological symptom reported by women. It affects between 50% and 90% of menstruating women. The wide variation in reported prevalence rates is probably due to differences in definition.
- In a longitudinal survey of 404 nurses with primary dysmenorrhea, mild symptoms were present in 53%, moderate symptoms in 20%, and severe symptoms in 2%.
- May cause absence from school or work; 13-51% of women report ever having been absent and 5–14% report being frequently absent because of dysmenorrhea.
- Despite the high prevalence of dysmenorrhea and the impact it has on quality of life and general well-being few women seek medical treatment for dysmenorrhea.
- For more information, go to:
- Lower mid-abdominal or suprapubic pain, which is cramping in nature.
- Pain may radiate to the lower back and upper thighs
- Primary dysmenorrhea pain lasts from a few hours to between 48 and 72 hours
- Associated symptoms include nausea and vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea and headache
- Risk factors for primary dysmenorrhea:
- Age <30
- BMI <20
- Early menarche (<12 years)
- Longer cycles and duration of bleeding
- Heavy or irregular menstrual flow
Differentiate Primary and Secondary Dysmenorrhea
- Primary dysmenorrhea
- Usually starts 6 to 12 months after menarche, once cycles are regular.
- Pain often starts shortly before onset of menstruation and lasts for up to 72 hours, improving as the menses progresses.
- Other gynaecological symptoms are not usually present.
- Non-gynaecological symptoms, such as fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea or headache, may be present.
- Secondary dysmenorrhea:
- Menstrual pain appearing after two years or more of painless periods.
- Can rarely occur right after menarche, due to uterine outlet obstruction.
- Pain persisting after menstruation finishes; or present throughout the menstrual cycle, but exacerbated by menstruation.
- Other gynaecological symptoms present (for example, dyspareunia, menorrhagia, intermenstrual bleeding, vaginal discharge, postcoital bleeding)
- Common causes: endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease
- Insertion of intrauterine device within last 6 months
- Rectal pain or bleeding may indicate recto-vaginal endometriosis.
- Rule out pregnancy
- Miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy can present with new onset of pain and bleeding
Other Conditions which can Cause Similar Pain
- Abnormal uterine structure
- Unilateral or non-midline pain occurring around time of menses. This is usually benign, but should be investigated by the patient's primary care provider
- A condition causing dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, and an enlarged uterus; associated with heavier bleeding; more common in older women (40-50)
- A bladder infection which can cause pain similar to dysmenorrhea, but urinary symptoms will also be present, such as urinary frequency, urgency, pain or blood in the urine. Symptoms will not be related to the timing of menstruation
- Ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage
- Unexpected cramping or abnormal vaginal bleeding could indicate an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage. Check for history of recent menstrual irregularities
- Causes menstrual pelvic pain, similar to dysmenorrhea, but pain also occurs between menstrual periods. Dyspareunia, dyschezia (difficult or painful defecation), progressively worsening symptoms, or partial or non-response to NSAIDs are associated signs and symptoms
- Uterine fibroids
- May cause mild dysmenorrhea, but symptoms also include dyspareunia and non-cyclic pelvic pain
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- May cause abdominal cramping similar to dysmenorrhea, but will also present with diarrhea and timing will not be cyclical
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- May cause abdominal pain similar to dysmenorrhea, but will not be cyclical and will also present with diarrhea or constipation.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Pain is similar to dysmenorrhea and occurs around time of menses but is also associated with other symptoms such as abnormal uterine bleeding, vaginal discharge, fever or chills, and symptoms that worsen with motion, exercise or intercourse.
Patients with symptoms and history typical of dysmenorrhea often do not require further investigation, however an assessment by the patient's primary care provider should be recommended in the following situations:
- Secondary dysmenorrhea suspected
- Red flag symptoms
- New onset of pain with bleeding in patient with history of pain-free periods, especially if over age 25
- Persistent bleeding between periods
- Patient reports palpable abdominal or pelvic lump
- Pain occurs outside first 3 days of menses
- Changes in severity or pattern of the pain and menstrual fluid (flow, odour, colour)
- Non-midline pain, or unilateral pain
- Previous trials of NSAID therapy have failed (ensure taken optimally)
- Consult with primary healthcare provider before prescribing NSAID therapy if GI disorders, renal or hepatic disease
- Regular aerobic exercise
- Application of local heat to the lower back or abdomen
- Smoking cessation
- Vitamin B1 100 mg/day for 3 months reported to be effective for reducing pain (1 large randomized trial only).
- Three small trials of magnesium demonstrated modest benefits over placebo, but optimal dosing is unknown. 360mg starting three days before the period has been used.
- Fish oils, with a total daily dose of 1000mg of EPA and 720mg DHA, has some evidence for effectiveness. Takes up to 3 months of treatment to gauge effect.
- Acetaminophen may be helpful for mild symptoms but is not as effective as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (low quality evidence).
- ASA is not as effective as other NSAIDs (low quality evidence).
- OTC NSAIDs can be recommended for dysmenorrhea which does not restrict normal activities.
- NSAIDS or hormonal contraceptives (HCs) are therapies of choice for moderate to severe dysmenorrhea
- Combined HCs - oral contraceptives, dermal patch or vaginal ring - are ideal first-line choices for women desiring contraception - See Hormonal Contraceptive guidelines.
- Hormonal contraceptives are up to 90% effective in relieving dysmenorrhea symptoms.
- Combined Hormonal Contraceptives are considered the treatment of choice for dysmenorrhea for a patient who also desires contraception
- NSAIDS have anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity. They inhibit the cyclo-oxygenase (COX) enzymes responsible for prostaglandin synthesis.
- NSAIDs are effective in about 80% of cases.(Level 2 [mid-level] evidence.) See Products - Table 1.
- NSAIDs at prescription strengths are appropriate for moderate to severe symptoms which necessitate absence from school or work.
- Insufficient evidence to indicate whether any individual NSAID is more effective than any others
- Mefenamic acid may have an advantage, as it not only inhibits the formation of prostaglandins but can also block prostaglandins at the receptor site, however the clinical significance of this has been questioned
- Choice of an NSAID can be based on previous use if successful.
- With short-term use side effects of all NSAIDS are generally minor in patients without contraindications (see below).
- An initial loading dose of one and one-half to double the usual single dose may provide faster relief. The loading dose should be followed by the usual recommended dose until symptoms resolve.
- An alternative recommendation is to begin the NSAID at the onset of menses or perhaps even the day before and continue treatment around the clock for 2 to 3 days instead of waiting for symptom onset.
- Patient should experience reduction in or absence of pelvic pain related to menses within three
menstrual cycles of therapy. A trial of 3 to 6 months is recommended to determine benefit.
- If pain relief is inadequate consider a second NSAID from a different class or hormonal contraception. Review after three cycles.
- In refractory cases, a combination of NSAID and hormonal contraceptive may be effective. Review after 2 - 3 cycles. Approximately 10% of patients will not respond to combination treatment with NSAIDS and hormonal contraceptives.
- Lactation: Ibuprofen is first choice because it has very low levels in breast milk, a short half-life and is officially indicated as a treatment for fever and pain in infants. There is limited safety data on the use of other NSAIDs during lactation.
- Cardiovascular and/or Cerebrovascular disease:
- Treatment with NSAIDs must be undertaken with caution in patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease (CVD) or cerebrovascular disease, or presenting risk factors for CVD. For these patients, treatment options other than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be considered first.
- CVD includes:
- Myocardial infarction, angina, heart failure
- Peripheral artery disease (e.g. intermittent claudication)
- Cerebrovascular disease includes:
- Stroke or transient ischemic attack
- Risk factors include:
- Age >65
- Family history of premature cardiovascular disease
- Uncontrolled hypertension
- NSAIDs may raise blood pressure to a small degree and should be monitored during therapy, even if patient has controlled hypertension
- Uncontrolled dyslipidemia
- Kidney disease
- Short-term use of NSAIDs still carries risk in these patients
- Recommend appropriate non-pharmacological measures for all patients.
- NSAIDs should be taken with a full glass of water to facilitate dissolution. Don't lay down for 20 - 30 minutes after ingesting.
- Encourage patients on NSAIDs to drink adequate fluids to maintain hydration (to prevent kidney dysfunction).
- Taking NSAIDs with food is often recommended to prevent GI symptoms although there is no evidence this reduces the incidence of dyspepsia or ulceration.
- If NSAIDS are used an improvement in pain should be observed within an hour of the first dose; if pain does not improve or worsens, consult your pharmacist or primary care provider.
- If patient not responding after 3 cycles, consider prescribing a different class of NSAID, a hormonal contraceptive or referral to patient’s primary care provider.
- To gauge efficacy, see if these goals have been achieved:
- Pain level tolerable?
- No longer missing work or school (if applicable)?
- Any general improvement?
- If good response to prescription NSAIDs, advise patient to continue therapy (i.e. take NSAIDS for first few days of each cycle). Contact patient's primary care provider for authorization of further refills or refer the patient to their primary care provider.
- Remind patient to pre-dose the NSAIDs and use loading doses if appropriate.
- Treatment should be continued for a 3-cycle trial before declaring non-response.
- Non-responders should be referred for investigation of a secondary cause of dysmenorrhea such as endometriosis.
- If only partial relief of symptoms, recommend / prescribe an NSAID from a different class or prescribe a hormonal contraceptive if appropriate or refer patient to their primary care provider.
Assess for Adverse Effects:
- NSAIDs are generally well-tolerated for short-term therapy in young adults.
- Mild GI upset - suggest small frequent meals, chewing gum or sucking lozenges.
- Moderate GI upset - recommend OTC H2RA antagonists or omeprazole
- Discontinue if persistent nausea / vomiting, ringing in ears, shortness of breath; unusual bruising or bleeding (mouth, urine, stool), skin rash, swelling of limbs; chest pain, or palpitations. Refer to patient's primary care provider.
Detailed information on contraindications, cautions, adverse effects and interactions is available in individual drug monographs in the CPS (e-CPS), Lexi-Comp, AHFS, www.drugs.com or other reliable drug monograph references. For comprehensive drug comparisons, see RxFiles charts (www.rxfiles.ca). This information should be routinely consulted before prescribing.
TABLE 1: NSAIDS COMMONLY USED FOR DYSMENORRHEA
200 – 400 mg every 4 to 6 hours OR 600 – 800 mg three times daily as required
500 mg initially, then 250 mg every 6 hours for 3-5 days. Not indicated for children < 14 years of age.
1250 mg/day with loading dose; 1000 mg/day subsequent days; Max of 1 week therapy
500 mg initially, then 250 mg every 6 to 8 hours
Naproxen sodium DS* (long acting)
220 - 540mg BID
25 – 50 mg TID-QID
- Diclofenac K
- Apo-Diclo Rapide 50
- Voltaren Rapide
100mg loading dose, followed by 50mg every 6-8 hours
Max of 200mg on the first day which includes a loading dose; max of 100mg per subsequent day
May also prescribe combined hormonal contraception as a first-line option for dysmenorrhea. See Hormonal Contraception guideline.
*220mg of naproxen sodium = 200mg naproxen base
§Diclofenac sodium is NOT approved for dysmenorrhea
- pseudoDIN: 00951095
- Max of 2 claims per 365 days per patient
- Max of 2 claims per 365 days per patient
- May prescribe sufficient quantity to treat up to three episodes of dysmenorrhea (three consecutive menstrual cycles). Include a loading dose (if appropriate for chosen medication) and 5 days of treatment per menstrual cycle. One refill can be given, for a total of six cycles of treatment per assessment.
- Example: Diclofenac potassium 50mg, two tabs stat, then 1 tab q8h for 5 days. Prescribe a total of 48 tablets with one refill (one cycle = 16 tablets. 4 tablets on day 1 (2 tablets for loading dose then 2 more tablets on day 1), then 12 tablets for remaining 4 days of q8h treatment; give three cycles).
- If tolerability of chosen treatment is uncertain, may prefer to give only enough for one treatment cycle, then assess
- If an OTC strength of ibuprofen (200mg or 400mg) or naproxen sodium (220 mg) is chosen, it will NOT be eligible for the assessment fee.
- Only products with an official indication from Health Canada for dysmenorrhea and/or recommended by reputable and reliable guidelines are considered for these guidelines. Only the active ingredients in the "products" section are approved for pharmacist prescribing.
Marjoribanks J, Ayeleke RO, Farquhar C, Proctor M. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD001751. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001751.pub3.
Latthe PM1, Champaneria R. Dysmenorrhoea. BMJ Clin Evid. 2014 Oct 21;2014. pii: 0813. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25338194
Smith, R. Treatment of primary dysmenorrhea in adult women. In: UpToDate. Available at www.uptodate.com by subscription.
Dysmenorrhea. In: Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org. (Free access)
Rx Files 9th edition – NSAIDS, COXIB and other analgesics comparison chart. Available at www.rxfiles.ca
Lefebvre G, Pinsonneault O, Antao V et al. Primary dysmenorrhea consensus guideline. J Obstet Gynaecol Can 2005;27:1117-46.
Kalis K, Rivlin M. Dysmenorrhea. In Emedcine online. Available at http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/253812-overview, Accessed November 2015.
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Reviewed by Dr. D.G. Bishop, Family Physician and Loren Regier, Pharmacist, RxFiles Academic Detailing Program
Funded by the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy Professionals.
Posted May, 2010. Updated June 2018.