Researchers have identified a genetic variant associated with severe menstrual cramps.
This is the first genome-wide association study of this form of chronic pain. Known as dysmenorrhea, it is the most common gynecological condition among women over 18 and can be debilitating in certain cases. According to a physician’s handbook description of dysmenorrhea, the pain can be severe enough to interfere with daily activities in up to 20 percent of women who suffer from the condition.
“To date the genetic basis of pain severity for dysmenorrhea remains largely unknown,” said Nick Furlotte, senior scientist at 23andMe. “Our findings could provide deeper insight into potential treatments for what is a chronic and debilitating condition for many women.”
The study, conducted by scientists at Pfizer Inc. and 23andMe, found a single variant in the gene encoding nerve growth factor (NGF) associated with the condition in women of European ancestry. The researchers looked at data from more than 11,800 female customers of 23andMe, who consented to participate in research and answered survey questions ranking the severity of their menstrual cramps.
NGF is located in a region of the genome that also regulates ovarian and fat tissues, and has been linked to other pain disorders, although the function of the NGF gene as it relates to dysmenorrhea is not entirely known. The pain from menstrual cramps is mostly a function of the increased production of lipids known as prostaglandins during menstruation.
Although nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – such as ibuprofen or aspirin – are often effective in treating the pain, in about 15 percent of women the drugs are either ineffective or trigger adverse side effects.*
*Campbell MA, McGrath PJ. Non-pharmacologic strategies used by adolescents for the management of menstrual discomfort. The Clinical journal of pain 1999;15(4):313-320.
You can find the study in the journal Pain.