Menstruation and Menstrual Problems

Menstrual irregularities are changes to the menstrual cycle that result in missed periods, irregular periods, or excessive bleeding. NICHD is one of many federal agencies and NIH Institutes working to understand menstrual problems. NICHD supports and conducts research on what causes menstrual irregularities and how best to treat and detect them.

About Menstruation

Citations

  1. Sweet, M. G., Schmidt-Dalton, T. A., Weiss, P. M., & Madsen, K. P. (2012). Evaluation and management of abnormal uterine bleeding in premenopausal women. American Family Physician, 85, 35–43.
  2. Dasharathy, S. S., Mumford, S. L., Pollack, A. Z., Perkins, N. J., Mattison, D. R., Wactawski-Wende, J., & Schisterman, E. F. (2012). Menstrual bleeding patterns among regularly menstruating women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 175, 536–545.
  3. McDowell, M. A., Brody, D. J., & Hughes, J.P. (2007). Has age at menarche changed? Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2004. Journal of Adolescent Health, 40, 227–231.
  4. Krohn, P. L. (1949). Intermenstrual pain (the "Mittelschmerz") and the time of ovulation. British Medical Journal, 1(4609), 803–805. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2049988/?page=1

What are the symptoms of menstruation?

The primary sign of menstruation is bleeding from the vagina. Additional symptoms include:

  • Abdominal or pelvic cramping
  • Lower back pain
  • Bloating and sore breasts
  • Food cravings
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

What are menstrual irregularities?

For most women, a normal menstrual cycle ranges from 21 to 35 days.1 However, 14% to 25% of women have irregular menstrual cycles, meaning the cycles are shorter or longer than normal; are heavier or lighter than normal; or are experienced with other problems, like abdominal cramps.2 Irregular cycles can be ovulatory, meaning that ovulation occurs, or anovulatory, meaning ovulation does not occur.

The most common menstrual irregularities include:

  • Amenorrhea (pronounced ey-men-uh-REE-uh) or absent menstrual periods:3,4,5,6 When a woman does not get her period by age 16, or when she stops getting her period for at least 3 months and is not pregnant.
  • Oligomenorrhea (pronounced ol-i-goh-men-uh-REE-uh) or infrequent menstrual periods: Periods that occur more than 35 days apart.4
  • Menorrhagia (pronounced men-uh-REY-jee-uh) or heavy menstrual periods:3,4,7 Also called excessive bleeding. Although anovulatory bleeding and menorrhagia are sometimes grouped together, they do not have the same cause and require different diagnostic testing.7
  • Prolonged menstrual bleeding: Bleeding that exceeds 8 days in duration on a regular basis.4
  • Dysmenorrhea (pronounced dis-men-uh-REE-uh): Painful periods that may include severe menstrual cramps.8

Additional menstrual irregularities include:

  • Polymenorrhea (pronounced pol-ee-men-uh-REE-uh): Frequent menstrual periods occurring less than 21 days apart4
  • Irregular menstrual periods with a cycle-to-cycle variation of more than 20 days4
  • Shortened menstrual bleeding of less than 2 days in duration4
  • Intermenstrual bleeding: Episodes of bleeding that occur between periods, also known as spotting4

Citations

  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2012). FAQ: Abnormal uterine bleeding. Retrieved on May 24, 2016, from http://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Abnormal-Uterine-Bleeding external link (PDF 464 KB)
  2. Whitaker, L., & Critchley, H. O. D. (2016). Abnormal uterine bleeding. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 34, 54–65. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1521693415002266 external link
  3. Sweet, M. G., Schmidt-Dalton, T. A., Weiss, P. M., & Madsen, K. P. (2012). Evaluation and management of abnormal uterine bleeding in premenopausal women. American Family Physician, 85, 35–43.
  4. Munro, M. G., Critchley, H. O., & Fraser, I. S. (2012). The FIGO systems for nomenclature and classification of causes of abnormal uterine bleeding in the reproductive years: Who needs them? American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 207(4), 259–265.
  5. Master-Hunter, T., & Heiman, D. L. (2006). Amenorrhea: Evaluation and treatment. American Family Physician, 73, 1374–1382.
  6. Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2008). Current evaluation of amenorrhea. Fertility and Sterility, 90, S219–S225. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.08.038.
  7. Apgar, B. S., Kaufman, A. H., George-Nwogu, U., & Kittendorf, A. (2007). Treatment of menorrhagia. American Family Physician, 75, 1813–1819.
  8. French, L. (2005). Dysmenorrhea. American Family Physician, 71, 285–291.

How many women are affected by menstrual irregularities?

Menstrual irregularities occur in an estimated 14% to 25% of women of childbearing age.1

Estimates of the number of women with menstrual irregularities may differ by the cause or nature of the irregularity. For example, if a woman experiences severe cramps, she might be included in the tally of women with endometriosis rather than in the tally of women with menstrual irregularities.

Citations

  1. Whitaker, L., & Critchley, H. O. D. (2016). Abnormal uterine bleeding. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 34, 54–65. Retrieved December 2, 2016, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1521693415002266 external link.

What causes menstrual irregularities?

Menstrual irregularities can have a variety of causes, including pregnancy, hormonal imbalances, infections, diseases, trauma, and certain medications.1,2,3,4,5,6

Causes of irregular periods (generally light) include:2

  • What causes your period to be irregular?Perimenopause (generally in the late 40s and early 50s)
  • Primary ovarian insufficiency (POI)
  • Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa or bulimia)
  • Excessive exercise
  • Thyroid dysfunction (too much or too little thyroid hormone)
  • Elevated levels of the hormone prolactin, which is made by the pituitary gland to help the body produce milk
  • Uncontrolled diabetes 
  • Cushing's syndrome (elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, used in the body's response to stress)
  • Late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia (problem with the adrenal gland)
  • Hormonal birth control (birth control pills, injections, or implants)
  • Hormone-containing intrauterine devices (IUDs)
  • Scarring within the uterine cavity (Asherman's syndrome)
  • Medications, such as those to treat epilepsy or mental health problems

Common causes of heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding include:2,7

  • Adolescence (during which cycles may not be associated with ovulation)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) (bleeding irregular but heavy)
  • Uterine fibroids (benign growths of uterine muscle)
  • Endometrial polyps (benign overgrowth of the lining of the uterus)
  • Adenomyosis (the presence of uterine lining in the wall of the uterus)
  • Nonhormonal IUDs
  • Bleeding disorders, such as leukemia, platelet disorders, clotting factor deficiencies, or (less common) von Willebrand disease
  • Pregnancy complications (miscarriage)

Common causes of dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain) include:6,9

Citations

  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2012). FAQ: Abnormal uterine bleeding. Retrieved on May 24, 2016, from http://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Abnormal-Uterine-Bleeding external link (PDF 464 KB)
  2. Sweet, M. G., Schmidt-Dalton, T. A., Weiss, P. M., & Madsen, K. P. (2012). Evaluation and management of abnormal uterine bleeding in premenopausal women. American Family Physician, 85, 35–43.
  3. Master-Hunter, T., & Heiman, D. L. (2006). Amenorrhea: Evaluation and treatment. American Family Physician, 73, 1374–1382.
  4. Apgar, B. S., Kaufman, A. H., George-Nwogu, U., & Kittendorf, A. (2007). Treatment of menorrhagia. American Family Physician, 75, 1813–1819.
  5. Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2008). Current evaluation of amenorrhea [Review]. Fertility and Sterility, 90, S219–S225.
  6. French, L. (2005). Dysmenorrhea. American Family Physician, 71, 285–291.
  7. Godfrey, E. M., Folger, S. G., Jeng, G., Jamieson, D. J., & Curtis, K. M. (2013). Treatment of bleeding irregularities in women with copper-containing IUDs: A systematic review. Contraception, 87(5), 549–566. Retrieved August 2, 2016, from http://www.contraceptionjournal.org/article/S0010-7824(12)00816-5/abstract external link
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Chlamydia—CDC fact sheet. Retrieved on August 2, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/std/chlamydia/stdfact-chlamydia.htm
  9. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2016). FAQ: Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Retrieved on August 2, 2016, from http://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Gonorrhea-Chlamydia-and-Syphilis external link

How do health care providers diagnose menstrual irregularities?

A health care provider diagnoses menstrual irregularities using a combination of the following:1,2,3,4,5

  • Medical history
  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound examination
  • Endometrial biopsy—a small sample of the uterus's endometrial lining is taken to be examined under a microscope
  • Hysteroscopy—a diagnostic scope that allows a health care provider to examine the inside of the uterus, typically done as an outpatient procedure
  • Saline infusion sonohysterography—ultrasound imaging of the uterine cavity while it is filled with sterile saline solution
  • Transvaginal ultrasonography—ultrasound imaging of the pelvic organs, including the ovaries and uterus, using an ultrasound transducer that is inserted into the vagina

Citations

  1. Sweet, M. G., Schmidt-Dalton, T. A., Weiss, P. M., & Madsen, K. P. (2012). Evaluation and management of abnormal uterine bleeding in premenopausal women. American Family Physician, 85, 35–43.
  2. French, L. (2005). Dysmenorrhea. American Family Physician, 71, 285–291.
  3. Master-Hunter, T., & Heiman, D. L. (2006). Amenorrhea: Evaluation and treatment. American Family Physician, 73, 1374–1382.
  4. Apgar, B. S., Kaufman, A. H., George-Nwogu, U., & Kittendorf, A. (2007). Treatment of menorrhagia. American Family Physician, 75, 1813–1819.
  5. Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2008). Current evaluation of amenorrhea. Fertility and Sterility, 90, S219–S225.

What are the common treatments for menstrual irregularities?

Treatments for menstrual irregularities often vary based on the type of irregularity and certain lifestyle factors, such as whether a woman is planning to get pregnant.

Treatment for menstrual irregularities that are due to anovulatory bleeding (absent periods, infrequent periods, and irregular periods) include:1,2

  • Oral contraceptives
  • Cyclic progestin
  • Treatments for an underlying disorder that is causing the menstrual problem, such as counseling and nutritional therapy for an eating disorder

Treatment for menstrual irregularities that are due to ovulatory bleeding (heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding) include:1,3,4,5,6

  • Insertion of a hormone-releasing intrauterine device
  • Use of various medications (such as those containing progestin or tranexamic acid) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications

If the cause is structural or if medical management is ineffective, then the following may be considered:

  • Surgical removal of polyps or uterine fibroids
  • Uterine artery embolization, a procedure to block blood flow to the uterus
  • Endometrial ablation, a procedure to cauterize (remove or close off by burning) blood vessels in the endometrial lining of the uterus
  • Hysterectomy

Treatment for dysmenorrhea (painful periods) include:7

  • Applying a heating pad to the abdomen
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Taking contraceptives, including injectable hormone therapy or birth control pills, using varied or less common treatment regimens

Citations

  1. ACOG Committee on Practice Bulletins—Gynecology, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2013). Practice bulletin no. 136: Management of abnormal uterine bleeding associated with ovulatory dysfunction. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 122(1), 176–185. PMID: 23787936. Retrieved December 2, 2016, from https://www.guideline.gov/summaries/summary/47451
  2. Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2008). Current evaluation of amenorrhea. Fertility and Sterility, 90, S219–S225.
  3. Apgar, B. S., Kaufman, A. H., George-Nwogu, U., & Kittendorf, A. (2007). Treatment of menorrhagia. American Family Physician, 75, 1813–1819.
  4. Lethaby, A., Irvine, G., & Cameron, I. (1998). Cyclical progestogens for heavy menstrual bleeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4, CD001016.
  5. Lethaby, A. E., Cooke, I., & Rees, M. (2005). Progesterone/progestogen releasing intrauterine systems versus either placebo or any other medication for heavy menstrual bleeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4, CD002126.
  6. Lethaby, A., Shepperd, S., Cooke, I., & Farquhar, C. (1999). Endometrial resection and ablation versus hysterectomy for heavy menstrual bleeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2, CD000329.
  7. Proctor, M. L., & Farquhar, C. M. (2007). Dysmenorrhoea. Clinical Evidence, pii, 0813.

NICHD Menstruation Research Goals

Understanding and maximizing women’s health has been part of the NICHD mission since the Institute was founded. Research on menstruation and menstrual irregularities is an important part of addressing this mission.

Fertility status is viewed as an important marker of overall health in that irregularities in the menstrual cycle, including those that affect fertility, may signal a larger health problem. As a result, NICHD research on menstruation and menstrual irregularities falls into multiple disciplines, such as reproductive endocrinology, infertility/fertility research, and reproductive and regenerative medicine, as well as specific studies of gynecological disorders that affect menstruation, such as endometriosisuterine fibroids, and polycystic ovary syndrome.

In addition, the NICHD-funded Reproductive Medicine Network conducts large, multicenter clinical trials of diagnostic and therapeutic interventions for infertility and reproductive diseases and disorders to help advance treatment options for women affected by these conditions.

Menstruation Research Activities and Advances

NICHD conducts and supports research to learn more about normal menstruation and menstrual irregularities.

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