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Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

(Premenstrual Tension)

by JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is characterized by irritability, anxiety, emotional lability, depression, edema, breast pain, and headaches, occurring during the 7 to 10 days before and usually ending a few hours after onset of menses. Diagnosis is clinical, often based on the patient’s daily recording of symptoms. Treatment is symptomatic and includes diet, drugs, and counseling.

About 20 to 50% of women of reproductive age have PMS; about 5% have a severe form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder.


The cause is unclear. Possible causes or contributing factors include multiple endocrine factors (eg, hypoglycemia, other changes in carbohydrate metabolism, hyperprolactinemia, fluctuations in levels of circulating estrogen and progesterone, abnormal responses to estrogen and progesterone, excess aldosterone or ADH), and a genetic predisposition. Estrogen and progesterone can cause transitory fluid retention, as can excess aldosterone or ADH.

Serotonin deficiency is thought to contribute because women who are most affected by PMS have lower serotonin levels and because SSRIs (which increase serotonin) sometimes relieve symptoms of PMS. Mg and Ca deficiencies may contribute.

Symptoms and Signs

Type and intensity of symptoms vary from woman to woman and from cycle to cycle. Symptoms last a few hours to 10 days, usually ending when menses begins. Symptoms may become more severe during stress or perimenopause. In perimenopausal women, symptoms may persist until after menses.

The most common symptoms are irritability, anxiety, agitation, anger, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, lethargy, depression, and severe fatigue. Fluid retention causes edema, transient weight gain, and breast fullness and pain. Pelvic heaviness or pressure and backache may occur. Some women, particularly younger ones, have dysmenorrhea when menses begins. Other nonspecific symptoms may include headache, vertigo, paresthesias of the extremities, syncope, palpitations, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and changes in appetite. Acne and neurodermatitis may also occur. Existing skin disorders may worsen, as may respiratory problems (eg, allergies, infection) and eye problems (eg, visual disturbances, conjunctivitis).

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

Some women have severe PMS symptoms that occur regularly and only during the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle; symptoms end with menses or shortly after. Mood is markedly depressed, and anxiety, irritability, and emotional lability are pronounced. Suicidal thoughts may be present. Interest in daily activities is greatly decreased. In contrast to PMS, PMDD causes symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with routine daily activities or overall functioning. PMDD is a severely distressing, disabling, and often underdiagnosed.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Consider premenstrual dysphoric disorder if women have nonspecific but severe symptoms just before menses.


  • For PMS, patient’s report of symptoms

  • For PMDD, clinical criteria

PMS is diagnosed based on physical symptoms (eg, bloating, weight gain, breast tenderness, swelling of hands and feet). Women may be asked to record their symptoms daily. Physical examination and laboratory testing are not helpful.

If PMDD is suspected, women are asked to rate their symptoms daily for 2 cycles to determine whether severe symptoms occur regularly. For PMDD to be diagnosed, women must have 5 of the following symptoms for most of the week before menses and at least one symptom must be from the first 4:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or self-depreciation

  • A tense (on edge) feeling or anxiety

  • Emotional lability with frequent tearfulness

  • Irritability or anger that persists, leading to increased interpersonal conflicts

  • Loss of interest in daily activities, possibly causing withdrawal

  • Decreased concentration

  • Fatigue, lethargy, or lack of energy

  • Changes in eating habits, including bingeing

  • Insomnia or hyperinsomnia

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control

  • Physical symptoms associated with PMS

Also, the symptom pattern must have occurred for most of the previous 12 mo, and symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with daily activities and function.

Patients with symptoms of depression are evaluated using a depression inventory or are referred to a mental health care practitioner for formal evaluation.


  • General measures

  • Sometimes SSRIs or hormonal manipulation

PMS can be difficult to treat. No single treatment has proven efficacy for all women, and few woman have complete relief with any single type of treatment. Treatment can thus require trial and error, as well as patience.

Treatment is symptomatic, beginning with adequate rest and sleep, regular exercise, and activities that are relaxing. Regular exercise may help alleviate bloating as well as irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. Yoga helps some women. Dietary changes—increasing protein, decreasing sugar, and taking vitamin B complex (especially pyridoxine, a form of vitamin B 6 ) or Mg supplements—may help, as may counseling and avoiding stressful activities. Other possible strategies include avoiding certain foods and drinks (eg, cola, coffee, hot dogs, potato chips, canned goods) and eating more of others (eg, fruits, vegetables, milk, complex carbohydrates, high-fiber foods, low-fat meats, foods high in Ca and vitamin D). Ca and vitamin D supplements may also help. Fluid retention may be relieved by reducing Na intake and taking a diuretic (eg, spironolactone 100 mg po once/day) just before symptoms are expected. However, minimizing fluid retention and taking a diuretic do not relieve all symptoms and may have no effect.

NSAIDs can help relieve aches, pains, and dysmenorrhea. SSRIs (eg, fluoxetine 20 mg po once/day) are the drugs of choice for relief of anxiety, irritability, and other emotional symptoms, particularly if stress cannot be avoided. SSRIs effectively relieve symptoms of PMDD. Clomipramine, given for the full cycle or a half-cycle, effectively relieves emotional symptoms. Anxiolytics may help but are usually less desirable because dependence or addiction is possible.

For some women, hormonal manipulation is effective. Options include

  • Oral contraceptives

  • Progesterone by vaginal suppository (200 to 400 mg once/day)

  • An oral progestin (eg, micronized progesterone 100 mg at bedtime) for 10 to 12 days before menses

  • A long-acting progestin (eg, medroxyprogesterone 200 mg IM q 2 to 3 mo)

Rarely, for very severe or refractory symptoms, a gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist (eg, leuprolide 3.75 mg IM, goserelin 3.6 mg sc q mo) with low-dose estrogen/progestin (eg, oral estradiol 0.5 mg once/day plus micronized progesterone 100 mg at bedtime) is given to minimize cyclic fluctuations.

In women with severe symptoms, bilateral oophorectomy may alleviate symptoms because it eliminates menstrual cycles.

Bromocriptine and monoamine oxidase inhibitors are not useful.

Key Points

  • Symptoms of PMS can be nonspecific and vary from woman to woman.

  • PMS is diagnosed based on symptoms alone.

  • If symptoms seem severe and disabling, consider PMDD (which is often underdiagnosed), and ask patients to record symptoms for ≥ 2 cycles; for a diagnosis of PMDD, clinical criteria must be met.

  • Usually, treatment is a matter of trying various strategies to identify what helps a particular patient.

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