Dysmenorrhoea is a term used to describe low anterior pelvic pain which occurs in association with periods. Pathogenesis It is thought to be due to a release of prostaglandins and leukotrienes in the menstrual fluid, which in turn produces vasoconstriction in the uterine vessels, causing the uterine contractions which produce the pain. The prostaglandin release may also be responsible for gastrointestinal disturbance which may occur in association with dysmenorrhoea.
Classification Dysmenorrhoea may be thought of as either primary or secondary.
Primary dysmenorrhoea Primary dysmenorrhoea occurs in young females with no pelvic pathology.
- It often begins with the onset of ovulatory cycles 6 months-2 years after the menarche.
- The pain begins with the onset of the period and may last for 24-72 hours.
- There is some evidence to suggest that it may occur more frequently, or be more severe in young women whose periods start at an early age.
Secondary dysmenorrhoea Secondary dysmenorrhoea occurs in association with some form of pelvic pathology.
- The pain typically precedes the start of the period by several days and may last throughout the period.
- There may be associated dyspaereunia.
- Secondary dysmenorrhoea may occur as a result of:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Developmental abnormalities
- Dysmenorrhoea is very common although the precise incidence is not known as it frequently goes unreported.
- Approximately 50% of women in the UK will at some stage complain of moderately painful periods.
- Primary dysmenorrhoea is the most commonly given reason for absence from school amongst adolescent girls and approximately 15% will complain of severe dysmenorrhoea.
- Nulliparity, early menarche, smoking and lengthy periods are all risk factors associated with dysmenorrhoea.
- Females who are depressed and/or have poor social support networks are also more likely to experience pain.
Assessment A presumptive diagnosis of primary dysmenorrhoea may be made on history abdominal examination alone in young patients who are not sexually active and vaginal examination is not normally required in this group of patients. Investigation of dysmenorrhoea is primarily aimed at ruling out underlying pathology and may include any or all of the following as appropriate to the individual History:
- Age at menarche
- Cycle length
- Whether the cycle is regular
- Duration of bleeding
- Timing of pain in relation to period
- Smoking history
- Whether the patient is sexually active
- Obstetric history
- Contraceptive history
- Any features suggestive of underlying pathology (e.g. vaginal discharge, intermenstrual or post-coital bleeding, dyspaereunia)
Examination Abdominal/vaginal examinations are indicated if sexually active:
- Adenomyosis uterus may be enlarged and tender with a typical boggy feel
- Endometriosis Generalised tenderness in pelvic area. Uterus may be fixed retroverted due to adhesions, nodules may be palpable in the utero-sacral ligaments
- Partially imperforate hymen (rare)
- Vaginal septum (rare)
- Vaginal examination if sexually active
- High vaginal swab, chlamydial swabs
- Cervical smear
- Pelvic ultrasound if uterine enlargement or adnexal mass present
- Transvaginal ultrasound
- MRI scan
- Laparotomy with biopsy
Management General measures Patients may be concerned about the possibility of underlying pathology and, when appropriate, reassurance and an explanation of the mechanism of menstrual pain may be helpful.
- Lifestyle changes longitudinal studies have looked at risk factors for dysmenorrhoea and have found a clear association between smoking and dysmenorrhoea, patients should therefore be informed of this relationship and assisted in any attempts to stop smoking.There also appears to be a link between obesity and dysmenorrhoea, although this link is inconsistent, and there is some evidence to suggest that dysmenorrhoea is independent of BMI but rather is linked to attempts to loose weight. Previous studies had suggested that there may be a link between alcohol consumption and exercise levels and dysmenorrhoea; however, once again, the evidence for this is inconsistent.
- Self-help techniques anecdotally, many women find the following measures to be helpful in relieving the symptoms of dysmenorrhoea:
- Tea, regular, camomile or mint
- Warmth to the abdomen
- A warm bath
- Abdominal and/or back massage
- Lying in the supine position
- Complementary and alternative medicines several dietary supplements and herbal remedies have been shown to be more effective than placebo in a study group. These include:
- Calcium and magnesium
- Fish oil supplements
- Trans-electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
- NSAIDs Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly used drugs for the treatment of dysmenorrhoea due to their inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis. This is a class effect and all NSAIDs appear equally effective.11 Ibuprofen is most often used due to its low incidence of side-effects. Adolescents and young adults with symptoms that do not respond to treatment with NSAIDs for 3 menstrual periods should be offered combined oral contraceptive pills for 3 menstrual cycles.
- Oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) are also used. It is thought that the mechanism of action is reduced prostaglandin release during menstruation. OCPs may be given by the oral or vaginal route for the treatment of dysmenorrhoea; the vaginal route having fewer systemic side-effects and greater analgesic effect. Despite the common use of OCPs in the treatment of dysmenorrhoea (and guidance from the Faculty of Family Planning stating it can be used for this purpose from the menarche), recent Cochrane reviews have been inconclusive, due to a lack of evidence from randomised control trials. OCPs can also be used to increase cycle length and therefore reduce the frequency of the symptoms. Adolescents and young adults who do not respond to this treatment should be evaluated for secondary causes of dysmenorrhoea. This is likely in approximately 10% of patients.
- Depo-Provera Depo-medroxyprogesterone acetate is also sometimes used as many women become amenorrhoeic within a year of starting treatment. Due to the potential risk of osteoporosis in women using Depo-Provera at an early age, this treatment should only be considered if other therapies have been unsuccessful.
- Mirena There is some evidence to suggest that use of the levonorgestrel intrauterine device (Mirena) may be of use in some women.
- Danazol Danazol may be used occasionally, with specialist supervision, in the treatment of severe refractory cases.
- Leuprolide acetate May be used in rare cases to suppress the menstrual cycle, but has a significant side-effect profile.
- Laparoscopic uterine nerve ablation (LUNA) is sometimes used for the treatment of severe refractory cases, however a Cochrane meta-analysis has recently concluded that there is insufficient evidence of it`s effectiveness to recommend the procedure.
- Hysterectomy In severe refractory cases, particularly in women who feel they have completed their families, hysterectomy may be considered.