Period cramps are painful sensations that can happen before or during a menstrual period. The pain can be so severe that it affects daily activities. But many treatments and techniques can provide relief.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms that a person may experience up to 2 weeks before their period, as the Office on Women’s Health explains.

It also reports that more than 90% of people who menstruate experience PMS symptoms, such as:

  • mood changes
  • bloating
  • headaches

Dysmenorrhea is a medical term for frequent, painful cramping during a period. Research suggests that 16–90% of people who menstruate experience it, and 29% describe the pain as severe.

Painful periods are common, and the pain can range from dull but bothersome to so severe that it disrupts daily life. Usually, the pain is present in the lower abdomen and lower back.

In a later section, we describe natural remedies, home care techniques, and over-the-counter and prescription treatments for painful period cramps.

Menstruation typically occurs roughly every 28 days between puberty and menopause, except during pregnancy, if a person becomes pregnant.

During menstruation, chemicals in the body called prostaglandins prompt the muscles of the womb to contract irregularly.

This motion encourages the womb to expel the lining of tissue that builds up in preparation for pregnancy, as well as menstrual blood.

When the womb contracts, this can cause cramps or throbbing pains in the lower belly a day or two before a period starts. The cramps tend to last for a few days. Everyone who menstruates experiences these contractions. For some people they are not noticeable, for others they cause severe discomfort.

In roughly 10% of people who menstruate, painful periods interfere with daily activities on up to 3 days a month.

Period pain is usually worse in people younger than 20 years, and it may get better or even go away entirely within a few years of a person’s first period. For some people, the pain becomes milder after the birth of their first child.

When a person experiences period pain, it may or may not stem from a health problem.

“Primary dysmenorrhea” is lower abdominal pain during the menstrual cycle that does not relate to another health condition. “Secondary dysmenorrhea” is period pain that stems from a health problem, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease.

Signs of irregular menstrual pain

Signs and symptoms that period pain may require further investigation include:

  • the pain not improving, even after over-the-counter pain relief treatment
  • pain that disrupts daily life
  • very heavy bleeding and clotting
  • anemia

Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms should contact a doctor or another healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Learn more about period cramps here.

This condition is most common in people aged 30–40 years, and it may affect up to 11% of women aged 15–44 years in the United States.

Endometriosis causes tissues similar to the lining of the womb to grow elsewhere, such as on the fallopian tubes and ovaries. This can cause symptoms such as spotting and bleeding, pain, and difficulty conceiving.

Learn more about endometriosis here.

Many people who menstruate experience painful cramps, and these approaches might help:

  • Exercise: Exercise can help reduce the pain of period cramps by lowering levels of beta-endorphins and promoting blood circulation in the pelvis. Even regular, brisk walking may make a difference in menstrual pain, particularly if a person gets this type of exercise at the beginning of their period.
  • Heat: Research confirms that heat can help reduce period pain. A person might use a hot water bottle or a heating pad or take a hot bath, when possible.
  • Acupuncture: This involves a trained practitioner inserting fine needles in specific areas to stimulate the nervous system and relieve pain. Evidence shows that it may help ease period pain.
  • Herbs: Limited evidence suggests that some plant-based remedies may help relieve period cramps.

Learn more about home remedies for period pain.

The discomfort of period cramps can vary over time and from person to person. Many people benefit from taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), which are available over the counter.

These drugs can ease period pain and lower levels of prostaglandins. However, confirming their effectiveness and safety requires further research.

If other treatments and approaches do not provide relief, a doctor may prescribe:

  • Hormonal birth control: These pills thin the lining of the womb and reduce the production of prostaglandins.
  • Glyceryl trinitrate patches: This medication increases nitric oxide levels, promoting muscle relaxation and reducing period pain — but it may result in severe headaches.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These medications can also relax muscles. Flushing, headaches, and an increased heart rate are possible side effects.

Learn about the most common side effects of birth control pills here.

Below, find answers to some common questions about painful cramps before or during a period:

Are any foods good for period cramps?

Some research suggests that a diet rich in fish, fruit, vegetables, and eggs can help reduce the likelihood of period cramps. A diet rich in magnesium may help prevent muscle spasms. And high fiber, low-salt, and vegetarian diets may reduce prostaglandin production and result in fewer cramps.

Learn more about what to eat during a period here.

What dietary supplements help period cramps?

A 2016 review notes that some supplements, such as fish oil, vitamin B1, zinc, and vitamin E, may help reduce the pain of period cramps.

Research from 2014 also indicates that vitamin B1 can help reduce the pain, and another 2014 study concludes that fish oil may help provide relief. Other evidence highlights the potential role of magnesium in reducing period pain.

Learn more about vitamins and supplements here.

Can essential oils help period cramps?

Some essential oils may help ease menstrual pain. A 2016 study suggests that rose essential oil may have this effect.

Learn all about essential oils here.

Many people who get menstrual periods have associated pain or discomfort. This often stems from cramping, painful muscle contractions that help the body shed the uterine lining.

The pain can be intense and disrupt daily activities. A person may find relief from self-care techniques, such as applying heat, changing the diet, and doing gentle exercise. Taking NSAIDs and having acupuncture may also help. If these approaches are ineffective, contact a doctor about prescription medications.