Pelvic pain is discomfort that occurs in the lowest part of the torso, the area below the abdomen and between the hipbones. It does not include pain that occurs externally in the genital area (vulva). Many women have pelvic pain. Pain is considered chronic if it continues to occur for more than 4 to 6 months.
Pelvic pain can be a gynecologic symptom. That is, it can result from a disorder affecting the female reproductive system.
The pain may be sharp or crampy (like menstrual cramps) and may come and go. It may be sudden and excruciating, dull and constant, or some combination. The pain may gradually increase in intensity, sometimes occurring in waves. Often, pelvic pain occurs in cycles that coordinate with the menstrual cycle. That is, pain may occur every month just before or during menstrual periods or in the middle of the menstrual cycle, when the egg is released (during ovulation).
The pelvic area may feel tender when touched. Depending on the cause, women may have bleeding Vaginal Bleeding Abnormal vaginal bleeding includes any vaginal bleeding that occurs Before puberty During pregnancy After menopause Between menstrual periods read more or a discharge Vaginal Discharge A discharge from the vagina may occur normally or may result from inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis) due to an infection. The genital area (vulva)—the area around the opening of the vagina—may... read more from the vagina. The pain may also be accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and/or light-headedness.
Causes of Pelvic Pain
Usually, pelvic pain is not caused by a serious disorder. It is often related to the menstrual cycle Menstrual Cycle Menstruation is the shedding of the lining of the uterus (endometrium) accompanied by bleeding. It occurs in approximately monthly cycles throughout a woman's reproductive life, except during... read more . However, several disorders that cause pelvic pain can lead to peritonitis Peritonitis Abdominal pain is common and often minor. Severe abdominal pain that comes on quickly, however, almost always indicates a significant problem. The pain may be the only sign of the need for surgery... read more (inflammation and usually infection of the abdominal cavity), which is a serious disorder.
Disorders that can cause pelvic pain include
Gynecologic disorders—those that affect the reproductive organs (vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries)
Disorders that affect other organs in the pelvis, such as the bladder, rectum, or appendix
Disorders that affect organs near but outside the pelvis, such as the abdominal wall, intestine, kidneys, ureters, or lower part of the aorta
Often, doctors cannot identify what is causing pelvic pain.
Gynecologic disorders may be related to the menstrual cycle or not. The most common gynecologic causes of pelvic pain include
Pain in the middle of the menstrual cycle (mittelschmerz), occurring during ovulation
Endometriosis Endometriosis In endometriosis, patches of endometrial tissue—normally occurring only in the lining of the uterus (endometrium)—appear outside the uterus. Why endometrial tissue appears outside the uterus... read more (abnormally located patches of tissue that is normally located only in the lining of the uterus)
Fibroids Fibroids A fibroid is a noncancerous tumor composed of muscle and fibrous tissue. It is located in the uterus. Fibroids can cause pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, constipation, repeated miscarriages... read more in the uterus are noncancerous tumors composed of muscle and fibrous tissue. They can cause pelvic pain if they are degenerating or cause excessive bleeding or cramping. Most uterine fibroids do not cause pain.
Other common causes of pelvic pain include
Digestive tract disorders: Gastroenteritis Overview of Gastroenteritis Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach and small and large intestines. It is usually caused by infection with a microorganism but can also be caused by ingestion of chemical... read more , constipation Constipation in Adults Constipation is difficult or infrequent bowel movements, hard stool, or a feeling that the rectum is not totally empty after a bowel movement (incomplete evacuation). (See also Constipation... read more , collections of pus (abscesses), and tumors (cancerous or not), such as colon cancer Colorectal Cancer Family history and some dietary factors (low fiber, high fat) increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. Typical symptoms include bleeding during a bowel movement, fatigue, and weakness... read more
Urinary disorders: Infections (such as cystitis Bladder Infection Cystitis is infection of the bladder. Usually, bacteria are the cause of cystitis. A frequent need to urinate and pain or burning while urinating are the most common symptoms. Doctors can often... read more ), stones in the urinary tract Stones in the Urinary Tract Stones (calculi) are hard masses that form in the urinary tract and may cause pain, bleeding, or an infection or block of the flow of urine. Tiny stones may cause no symptoms, but larger stones... read more (such as kidney stones), and inflammation of the bladder without infection (such as interstitial cystitis Interstitial Cystitis Interstitial cystitis is noninfectious bladder inflammation. Interstitial cystitis causes pain above the bladder, in the pelvis, or in the lower abdomen, and the frequent and urgent need to... read more )
Musculoskeletal disorders: Separation of the pubic bones after delivery of a baby, fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia is characterized by poor sleep, fatigue, mental cloudiness, and widespread aching and stiffness in soft tissues, including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Poor sleep, stress, strains... read more , and strained abdominal muscles
Other disorders: Abscesses in the pelvis and an abdominal aortic aneurysm Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms Abdominal aortic aneurysms are bulges (dilations) in the wall of the aorta in the part that passes through the abdomen (abdominal aorta). Abdominal aortic aneurysms typically slowly expand and... read more (a bulge in the wall of the lower part of the aorta)
Psychologic factors, especially stress and depression Depression A short discussion of prolonged grief disorder. Depression is a feeling of sadness and/or a decreased interest or pleasure in activities that becomes a disorder when it is intense enough to... read more , may contribute to any kind of pain, including pelvic pain, but, by themselves, rarely cause pelvic pain.
Many women with chronic pelvic pain have been physically, psychologically, or sexually abused. Young girls who have been sexually abused may have pelvic pain. In such women and girls, psychologic factors may contribute to the pain.
Evaluation of Pelvic Pain
When a woman has new, sudden, very severe pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis, doctors must quickly decide whether emergency surgery is required. Disorders that usually require emergency surgery include
A ruptured ectopic pregnancy Ectopic Pregnancy Ectopic pregnancy is attachment (implantation) of a fertilized egg in an abnormal location. In an ectopic pregnancy, the fetus cannot survive. When an ectopic pregnancy ruptures, women often... read more (an abnormally located pregnancy—not in its usual place in the uterus)
A ruptured abscess in the pelvis
A tear in the intestine
Doctors check for pregnancy in all girls and women of childbearing age.
In women with pelvic pain, certain symptoms are cause for concern:
Light-headedness, sudden loss of consciousness however brief (fainting, or syncope), or dangerously low blood pressure (shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more )
Vaginal bleeding after menopause
Fever or chills
Sudden, severe pain, especially when accompanied by nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating, or agitation
When to see a doctor
Women with most warning signs should see a doctor immediately. However, if the only warning sign is vaginal bleeding after menopause, women can see a doctor within a week or so.
If women without warning signs have new pain that is constant and steadily worsening, they should see a doctor that day. If such women have new pain that is not constant and is not worsening, they should schedule a visit when practical, but a delay of several days is usually not harmful.
Recurring or chronic pelvic pain should be evaluated by a doctor at some point. Mild menstrual cramps are normal. Menstrual cramps do not require evaluation unless they are very painful.
What the doctor does
After making sure that the woman does not require emergency surgery, doctors ask the woman questions about her symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause and the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Gynecologic Causes of Pelvic Pain Some Causes of Pelvic Pain in Women* ).
Doctors ask about the pain:
Whether it begins suddenly or gradually
Whether it is sharp or dull
How severe it is
When it occurs in relation to the menstrual cycle, eating, sleeping, sexual intercourse, physical activity, urination, and bowel movements
Whether any other factors worsen or ease the pain
The woman is asked about other symptoms, such as vaginal bleeding, a discharge, and light-headedness.
The woman is asked to describe past pregnancies and menstrual periods. Doctors also ask whether she has had any disorders that can cause pelvic pain and whether she has had abdominal or pelvic surgery.
Doctors may ask about stress, depression, and other psychologic factors to determine whether these factors may be contributing to the pain, especially if the pain is chronic.
Certain groups of symptoms suggest a type of disorder. For example,
Fever and chills suggest an infection.
Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or relief or worsening of the pain during a bowel movement suggests a digestive tract disorder.
Vaginal bleeding suggests menstrual cramps Menstrual Cramps Menstrual cramps are pains in the lowest part of the torso (pelvis), a few days before, during, or after a menstrual period. The pain tends to be most intense about 24 hours after periods begin... read more , an ectopic pregnancy Ectopic Pregnancy Ectopic pregnancy is attachment (implantation) of a fertilized egg in an abnormal location. In an ectopic pregnancy, the fetus cannot survive. When an ectopic pregnancy ruptures, women often... read more , or a possible miscarriage Miscarriage A miscarriage is the loss of a fetus due to natural causes before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Miscarriages may occur because of a problem in the fetus (such as a genetic disorder or birth defect)... read more .
Menstrual cramps are diagnosed only after other, more serious causes are ruled out.
The physical examination focuses on the abdomen and pelvis. Doctors gently feel the abdomen and do a pelvic examination Gynecologic Examination For gynecologic care, a woman should choose a health care practitioner with whom she can comfortably discuss sensitive topics, such as sex, birth control, pregnancy, and problems related to... read more . This evaluation helps doctors determine which organs are affected and whether an infection is present. Often, doctors also check the rectum for abnormalities.
The following tests are routinely done:
Urine tests (urinalysis)
A urine pregnancy test if women are of childbearing age
Urinalysis Urinalysis and Urine Culture Urinalysis, the testing of urine, may be necessary in the evaluation of kidney and urinary tract disorders and can also help evaluate bodywide disorders such as diabetes or liver problems. A... read more is a simple, fast urine test that can rule out many common causes of pelvic disorders such as a bladder infection or most kidney stones.
The same urine sample can be used for a pregnancy test. If a very early pregnancy is possible and the urine test is negative, a blood test for pregnancy is done. The blood test is more accurate than the urine test when a pregnancy is less than 5 weeks.
If a urine pregnancy test indicates that the woman is pregnant, ultrasonography is done to rule out an ectopic pregnancy. For ultrasonography, doctors use a handheld ultrasound device that is placed on the abdomen or inside the vagina.. Ultrasonography of the pelvis is done for many reasons. It is whenever doctors think a gynecologic disorder may be the cause of the symptoms and the symptoms have begun suddenly, recur, or are severe.
If results of ultrasonography are unclear, other tests, such as a series of blood tests or laparoscopy, are done to rule out ectopic pregnancy. For the blood tests, doctors measure levels of a hormone produced by the placenta called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). If hCG levels are low, the pregnancy may be too early for ultrasonography to detect. If levels are high and ultrasonography does not detect a pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy is possible. For laparoscopy, doctors make a small incision just below the navel and insert a viewing tube (laparoscope) to directly look for an ectopic pregnancy or other causes of pelvic pain.
Tests depend on which disorders are suspected. Tests may include
Examination and culture of samples of urine or a discharge to check for infections that can cause pelvic pain
Ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the abdomen and pelvis to check for masses Introduction to Miscellaneous Gynecologic Abnormalities Noncancerous (benign) gynecologic growths include cysts, polyps, and myomas. Noncancerous growths can develop on the vulva (the area containing the external genital organs) or in the vagina... read more and tumors
If other tests do not identify a cause, laparoscopy
Treatment of Pelvic Pain
If the disorder causing pelvic pain is identified, that disorder is treated if possible.
Pain relievers may also be needed. Initially, pain is treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. Women who do not respond well to one NSAID may respond to another. If NSAIDs are ineffective, other pain relievers or hypnosis may be tried.
If the pain involves muscles, rest, heat, or physical therapy may help.
Rarely, when women have severe pain that persists despite treatment, hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) can be done, but it may be ineffective.
Essentials for Older Women
In older women, common causes of pelvic pain may be different because some disorders that cause pelvic pain become more common as women age, particularly after menopause. Obviously, disorders related to menstrual periods are no longer possible causes.
Common disorders in older women include
Many cancers of the reproductive tract Overview of Female Reproductive System Cancers Cancers can occur in any part of the female reproductive system—the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. These cancers are called gynecologic cancers. The most common... read more , including cancers of the lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer), fallopian tubes, ovaries, and vagina
After menopause, estrogen levels decrease, weakening many tissues, including bone, muscles (such as those of the bladder), and tissues around the vagina and urethra. As a result, fractures and bladder infections become more common.
Also, this weakening may contribute to pelvic organ prolapse, which may cause symptoms as women become older. In these disorders, weakened or damaged tissues in the pelvis can no longer hold the uterus, vagina, or other organs in the pelvis in place. As a result, one or more of these organs may drop down (prolapse).
Older women are more likely to take drugs (especially opioids) that can cause painful constipation.
In older women, the lining of the vagina thins and dries after menopause. This condition (called atrophic vaginitis) may make sexual intercourse painful, and women may describe or experience this pain as pelvic pain.
Evaluation is similar to that for younger women, except doctors pay particular attention to symptoms of urinary and digestive tract disorders. Older women should see a doctor promptly if they
Suddenly lose weight or their appetite
Suddenly start having indigestion
Have a sudden change in bowel movements
The doctor then does an examination to make sure that the cause is not ovarian or endometrial cancer.
Key Points about Pelvic Pain
Many women have pelvic pain.
Many disorders (related to reproductive organs or other nearby organs) can cause pelvic pain.
Doctors can determine likely causes based on a description of the pain, its relationship to the menstrual cycle, and results of a physical examination.
If women are of childbearing age, a pregnancy test is always done.
Urine tests and usually other tests, such as blood tests and ultrasonography of the pelvis, are done to confirm the suspected diagnosis.
Menstrual cramps are a common cause of pelvic pain but are diagnosed only after other causes have been ruled out.