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This topic focuses on pelvic pain that has lasted longer than 6 months. If you have new, sudden pelvic pain, see your doctor as soon as you can. To learn more about new pelvic pain, see the topic Abdominal Pain, Age 12 and Older.
Female pelvic pain is pain below a woman's belly button. It is considered chronic (which means long-lasting) if you have had it for at least 6 months. The type of pain varies from woman to woman. In some women, it is a mild ache that comes and goes. In others, the pain is so steady and severe that it makes it hard to sleep, work, or enjoy life.
If your doctor can find what's causing the pain, treating the cause may make the pain go away. If no cause is found, your doctor can help you find ways to ease the pain and get back your quality of life.
Some common causes include:
Doctors don't really understand all the things that can cause chronic pelvic pain. So sometimes, even with a lot of testing, the cause remains a mystery. This doesn't mean that there isn't a cause or that your pain isn't real.
Sometimes, after a disease has been treated or an injury has healed, the affected nerves keep sending pain signals. This is called neuropathic pain. It may help explain why it can be so hard to find the cause of chronic pelvic pain.
The type of pain can vary widely and may or may not be related to menstrual periods. Chronic pelvic pain can include:
Chronic pain can make it hard to sleep, work, or enjoy life. It can lead to depression. Depression can cause you to feel sad or hopeless, eat and sleep poorly, and move slowly.
At your first visit, your doctor will do a complete pelvic exam to look for problems with your reproductive system. The doctor will also ask questions about your past and present health and about your symptoms. You may have some tests, such as:
Emotional issues can play a big role in chronic pain. Your doctor may ask questions to find out if depression or stress is adding to your problem. You may also be asked about any past or current sexual or physical abuse. It can be hard to talk about these things, but it's important to do it so you can get the right treatment.
If the first tests don't find a cause, you may have other tests that show pictures of the organs in your belly. These may include:
You may also have a type of minor surgery called laparoscopy (say "lap-uh-ROS-kuh-pee"). In this surgery, the doctor puts a thin, lighted tube with a tiny camera through a small cut in your belly. This lets the doctor look for problems like growths or scar tissue inside your belly.
Finding the cause of pelvic pain can be a long and frustrating process. You can help by keeping notes about the type of pain you have, when it happens, and what seems to bring it on. Show these notes to your doctor. They may give clues about what is causing the problem or the best way to treat it. And whether or not a cause is found, your doctor can suggest treatments to help you manage the pain.
If your doctor found a problem that could be causing your pelvic pain, you will be treated for that problem. Some common treatments include:
Chronic pain can become a medical problem in itself. Whether or not a cause is found, your doctor can suggest treatments to help you manage the pain. You may get the best results from a combination of treatments such as:
You may need to try many treatments before you find the ones that help you the most. If the things you're using aren't working well, ask your doctor what else you can try. Taking an active role in your treatment may help you feel more hopeful.
Learning about chronic female pelvic pain:
Female pelvic pain is typically caused by a medical condition involving the reproductive organs, urinary tract, lower gastrointestinal tract, or nerves or muscles of the abdominal wall, hips, or pelvic floor. Some causes are always short-term (acute), and others can become long-lasting (chronic) unless successfully treated. Sometimes, no cause can be found.
Experts don't yet understand all possible causes of pelvic pain, especially when it has become chronic. So even after a lot of testing, many women never find out the reason for their pain.
One reason might be what's called neuropathic pain. Long after a disease or injury has healed, nerves can continue firing pain signals. This is thought to be caused by an overloading of the nervous system by extreme or long-lasting pain.
Not finding a cause doesn't mean that there isn't one or that there's no possible treatment.
Although the link isn't well understood, past or current abuse is strongly linked to chronic pelvic pain.
Female pelvic pain symptoms can include:
Depression symptoms are commonly linked to chronic pain. Signs of depression include:
For the best chance of recovery from pain, depression must be treated along with any known physical causes of pain.
It can sometimes be hard to know how long pelvic pain will last and how best to treat it. It's a little different for every woman. But in general:
Risk factors are things that increase your chances of getting a certain condition or disease. Risk factors for pelvic pain that becomes chronic include:
Call a doctor for immediate care if you have sudden, severe pelvic pain, with or without vaginal bleeding.
Call a doctor if:
Watchful waiting is a period of time during which you and your doctor watch your pelvic pain symptoms without using medical treatment.
During this period, you can keep a daily record of your symptoms and menstrual cycle and any other life events that you consider important. A watchful waiting period may last from a few days to weeks or possibly months.
The following primary health professionals can generally evaluate and help you manage the symptoms of female pelvic pain:
For advanced treatment methods, see a gynecologist or a urologist who specializes in female pelvic disorders.
If you have ever been physically or sexually abused, that trauma may be playing a part in your pain. So you'll need to let your doctor know about the abuse. This may be hard for you, but it may be easier if you find a doctor you feel comfortable talking to.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Although your condition may be diagnosed during your first exam, don't be surprised if you need to have a series of medical appointments and tests. For many women who have pelvic pain, diagnosing the cause is a process of elimination that takes a while.
Even if tests don't find any problems, it doesn't mean that there's no physical cause for your chronic pain. Tests aren't yet able to detect all causes.
It's a good idea to make a calendar or diary of your symptoms(What is a PDF document?), menstrual cycle, sexual activity, and physical exertion. And keep track of any other things that you think are important, such as stressful events or illnesses. Bring it with you when you see your doctor.
To begin narrowing down the list of possible causes of your pain, your doctor will review your symptom diary and:
You may also have tests, such as:
Sometimes more tests are needed. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following:
Chronic pain can have a wearing effect on the mind and emotions, which can in turn make harder to manage pain.
Your doctor may recommend a mental health assessment. You'll be asked questions to find out whether such conditions as depression, insomnia, or stress are adding to or being caused by your chronic pain.
For the best chance of recovering from pain, you will need treatment for emotional problems like these, plus treatment for any known physical causes of pain.
Treatment for chronic female pelvic pain can be approached in two ways: treating a known, specific cause of the pain or treating the pain itself as a medical condition. When it's possible, your doctor will do both.
Depending on the cause, treatment may include:
Finding a treatment that works may take a while. It's common for women to try many treatments before finding one or more that help.
Medicines that may help manage your pain include:
Counseling and mental skills training, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, help you manage your pain and the stress that makes it worse. For more information, see Other Treatment.
Alternative pain treatments that may help you manage pain include such things as acupuncture and transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS). For more information, see Other Treatment.
If your chronic pain hasn't responded to treatment or seems to have no physical cause, you may have neuropathic pain. This means that your nerves still create pain signals long after an original injury or disease has healed. If your doctor suspects that you have neuropathic pain, he or she may refer you to a pain management clinic for evaluation and treatment.
Decisions are complicated when you are considering treatment for chronic pelvic pain. Think about these questions, and talk to your doctor about them:
If you are close to menopause (usually around age 50) and your symptoms are likely related to hormones, your best option may be home treatment and medicine while you wait for menopause.
The hormone changes of menopause may get rid of your chronic pain, but the pain may come back if you use hormone therapy. If you are nearing menopause, talk with your doctor about your options.
Early diagnosis and treatment of pelvic pain may help keep the pain from becoming chronic.
One cause of chronic pelvic pain is pelvic inflammatory disease. You can greatly lower your risk of getting this disease by practicing safer sex. Safer sex includes using condoms and using them correctly.
You can try these steps at home to ease pelvic pain:
Medicine won't cure female pelvic pain. But it can help control the pain and keep it from getting worse or becoming chronic. There is no one medicine that works for all women.
Surgery is most likely to help when it's done for a specific condition, such as fibroids or endometriosis.
Hysterectomy, the removal of the uterus, is sometimes used as a last-resort treatment. Depending on the cause, hysterectomy may relieve pain for some women.
Studies have shown that surgery to remove scar tissue adhesions from previous surgery or from pelvic inflammatory disease doesn't relieve pain unless the adhesions are severe.footnote 1
Surgery to remove reproductive organs may also help when the cause of pain can't be found.footnote 1 When surgery, such as hysterectomy or cutting of specific pelvic-area nerves, is done for pain with no known cause, there is a risk of persistent pain or pain that is worse after surgery. And it can have serious side effects.
Laparoscopy to diagnose chronic pelvic pain may be done before other treatment. Areas of endometriosis or scar tissue may be removed or destroyed during the laparoscopy.
Chronic pelvic pain takes time to develop and can take a long time to treat. Take charge of how you cope with pain by using one or more of the treatment choices below. Combining your medical treatment with these practices can help you keep a positive state of mind.
Counseling and mental skills training help you learn the mental and emotional tools for managing chronic pain and the stress that makes it worse. Combining medical and psychological treatment increases your chances of treatment success.
Commonly used treatments include:
For more information, see the topic Stress Management.
Physical therapy can help you learn specific exercises to stretch and strengthen certain muscle groups. This helps you to improve posture, gait, and muscle tone.
Alternative pain treatments for chronic female pelvic pain aren't well studied. But they are considered helpful for managing stress and building mental mastery over pain.
Acupuncture and transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS) have shown some success in relieving painful menstrual periods. Acupuncture has also been used as a treatment for nonmenstrual chronic pelvic pain, but it isn't yet well studied.footnote 1
Other low-risk alternative pain treatments that many people use to help manage pain include:
CitationsAmerican College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2004, reaffirmed 2010). Chronic pelvic pain. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 51. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 103(3): 589-605.Rapkin AJ, Nathan L (2012). Pelvic pain and dysmenorrhea. In JS Berek, ed., Berek and Novak's Gynecology, 15th ed., pp. 470-504. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.Other Works ConsultedAndrews J, et al. (2012). Noncyclic Chronic Pelvic Pain Therapies for Women. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 41 (AHRQ Publication No. 11(12)-EHC088-1). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Available online http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK84586.Chen J, Roy S (2010). Chronic pelvic pain. In Management of Common Problems in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 5th ed., pp. 256-260. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.Engeler D, et al. (2012). Guidelines on Chronic Pelvic Pain. Arnhem, The Netherlands: European Association of Urology. Available online: http://www.uroweb.org/guidelines/online-guidelines. Rapkin AJ, Nathan L (2012). Pelvic pain and dysmenorrhea. In JS Berek, ed., Berek and Novak's Gynecology, 15th ed., pp. 470-504. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerSarah Marshall, MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerKevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as ofOctober 6, 2017
Current as of: October 6, 2017
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Kevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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