Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to a wide range of symptoms that:
- Start during the second half of the menstrual cycle (14 or more days after the first day of your last menstrual period)
- Go away 1 to 2 days after the menstrual period starts
The exact cause of PMS is not known. Changes in brain hormone levels may play a role, but this has not been proven. Women with premenstrual syndrome may also respond differently to these hormones.
PMS may be related to social, cultural, biological, and psychological factors.
Up to 3 out of every 4 women experience PMS symptoms during their childbearing years. PMS occurs more often in women:
- Between their late 20s and late 40s
- Who have had at least one child
- With a personal or family history of major depression
- With a history of postpartum depression or an affective mood disorder
The symptoms often get worse in a woman's late 30s and 40s as she approaches the transition to menopause.
The most common symptoms of PMS include:
- Bloating or feeling gassy
- Breast tenderness
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Food cravings
- Less tolerance for noises and lights
Other symptoms include:
- Confusion, trouble concentrating, or forgetfulness
- Fatigue and feeling slow or sluggish
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Feelings of tension, anxiety, or edginess
- Irritable, hostile, or aggressive behavior, with outbursts of anger toward self or others
- Loss of sex drive (may increase in some women)
- Mood swings
- Poor judgment
- Poor self-image, feelings of guilt, or increased fears
- Sleep problems (sleeping too much or too little)
Exams and Tests
There are no specific signs or lab tests that can diagnose PMS. To rule out other possible causes of symptoms, it is important to have a:
- Complete medical history
- Physical exam (including pelvic exam)
A symptom calendar can help women identify the most troublesome symptoms and confirm the diagnosis of PMS.
Keep a daily diary or log for at least 3 months. Record the type of symptoms you have, how severe they are, and how long they last. This symptom diary will help you and your health care provider find the best treatment.
A healthy lifestyle is the first step to managing PMS. For many women, lifestyle approaches are often enough to control symptoms.
- Drink plenty of fluids (water or juice, not soft drinks, alcohol, or other beverages with caffeine) to help reduce bloating, fluid retention, and other symptoms.
- Eat frequent, small meals. Do not go more than 3 hours between snacks. Avoid overeating.
- Eat a balanced diet with extra whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, and limited or no salt and sugar.
- Your health care provider may recommend that you take nutritional supplements. Vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium are commonly used. Tryptophan, which is found in dairy products, may also be helpful.
- Get regular aerobic exercise throughout the month to help reduce the severity of PMS symptoms. Exercise more often and harder during the weeks when you have PMS.
- Try changing your nighttime sleep habits before taking drugs for insomnia.
Birth control pills may decrease or increase PMS symptoms.
In severe cases, medicines to treat depression may be helpful. Antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often tried first, and have been shown to be very helpful. You may also want to seek the advice of a counselor or therapist.
Other medicines that you may use include:
- Anti-anxiety drugs for severe anxiety
- Diuretics (may help with severe fluid retention, which causes bloating, breast tenderness, and weight gain)
Most women who are treated for PMS symptoms get good relief.
PMS symptoms may become severe enough to prevent you from functioning normally.
The suicide rate in women with depression is much higher during the second half of the menstrual cycle. Mood disorders need to be diagnosed and treated.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Make an appointment with your health care provider if:
- PMS does not go away with self treatment
- Your symptoms are so severe that they limit your ability to function
- You feel like you want to hurt yourself or others
PMS; Premenstrual dysphoric disorder; PMDD
Lentz GM. Primary and secondary dysmenorrhea, premenstrual syndrome, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder: etiology, diagnosis, management. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2012: chap. 36.
Update Date 6/11/2014
Updated by: Cynthia D. White, MD, Fellow American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Group Health Cooperative, Bellevue, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.