What is primary dysmenorrhea?

Primary dysmenorrhea is a type of menstruation specifically triggered by excess prostaglandins and characterized by extreme pain and cramping. Prostaglandins are present in all menstruating women. These chemical compounds, which act like hormones, are necessary for the uterus to contract slightly so that the blood-filled uterine lining can be shed every 28 days as part of the menstrual cycle. When too many prostaglandins are produced, the contractions and cramps are so strong that they cause discomfort and severe pain resulting in primary dysmenorrhea. This type of dysmenorrhea is different from secondary dysmenorrhea, which is caused by disease or trauma to the pelvic region.

Doctors have not fully discovered what causes the uterus to produce the excess prostaglandins that are responsible for causing primary dysmenorrhea. In addition to contributing to back and stomach pain, the condition can also reduce or stop circulation in most of the blood vessels that serve the uterus. Additional side effects associated with primary dysmenorrhea include vomiting, migraines, and fainting. Diarrhea and a general feeling of exhaustion are also possible.

There are natural and pharmaceutical remedies to relieve the pain of primary dysmenorrhea. Some women use heating pads to relieve cramps in the lower back and pelvic region. Others use vitamin C from foods such as grapefruits, oranges, or red and yellow bell peppers to dull pain. Those who prefer supplemental vitamin C generally aim for at least 1,000 mg daily a few days before the menstrual cycle and throughout its duration. Other vitamins that nutritionists recommend for relieving primary dysmenorrhea include vitamin E and vitamin B6.

There are prescription medications designed to stop dysmenorrhea by lowering the body's prostaglandin levels and balancing hormones in the body. Birth control pills or injections, for example, are often prescribed to decrease prostaglandin production. For heavy-duty pain relief, the prescription drug naproxen sodium is often used. Anti-inflammatory substances such as aspirin or ibuprofen-containing tablets are the most common pharmacy medications that can be purchased without a prescription for moderate pain relief.

Some medical centers estimate that up to 50 percent of all women may suffer from primary dysmenorrhea, with approximately 10 percent experiencing unbearable levels of distress. Symptoms often begin during the teenage years and can last, for some women, until menopause. People with recurrent episodes of dysmenorrhea have the condition for about three days at a time. Sometimes blood clots form during dysmenorrhea. Doctors say that primary dysmenorrhea is related only to menstrual cycles where ovulation has occurred.

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