Dysmenorrhea--more commonly known as menstrual cramps--is the condition of painful abdominal cramps caused by uterine contractions during a woman’s period. The opiate painkiller hydrocodone is sometimes used to treat severe menstrual cramps. The decision to use hydrocodone for menstrual cramps must be weighed carefully by doctor and patient due to the risk of addiction and other side effects.
Use and Effectiveness
Hydrocodone is an opiate analgesic that works by affecting areas of the brain responsible for pain perception. It can be extremely effective in treating menstrual cramps, but isn’t generally prescribed for such use unless other treatments—such as NSAID pain relievers—have failed.
Hydrocodone is available in various preparations, some containing acetaminophen (Vicodin, Lortab) and others that contain an NSAID such as ibuprofen (Vicoprofen). Women who use hydrocodone to treat menstrual cramps are usually advised to take it only during the first few days of their period when pain is the worst or avoid its use altogether unless pain is intolerable.
Physical Side Effects
Hydrocodone attaches to opiate receptors throughout the body, most of which are located in the brain and gastrointestinal tract. Thus, the majority of its side effects involve one of these areas.
The most common physical side effects of hydrocodone are vomiting, constipation and dry mouth. Skin reactions caused by the body’s histamine response to the drug are also common and include itching and mild rash. Because of its depressant effects, hydrocodone may cause slowed breathing, low blood pressure and dizziness. Serious side effects include allergic reaction, urinary retention, trouble breathing and slowed heart rate.
Psychological Side Effects
Because opiates act directly on the central nervous system, hydrocodone is capable of causing significant mental and emotional side effects.
Drowsiness and vivid dreams are among the most common psychological side effects of hydrocodone. Some people experience euphoria—or feelings of extreme happiness—on the drug, while others report mood swings and dysphoria. Less common psychological side effects include depression, anxiety and irritability.
Tolerance and Addiction
Addiction is the most serious risk associated with hydrocodone and other opiates. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of young prescription opiate addicts has risen from 400,000 in the mid-1980s to more than two million in 2000.
Frequent hydrocodone users often experience an increase in their tolerance to the drug, rendering the original dosage ineffective and requiring increasingly higher amounts to produce the desired effects. As dosage and frequency of use increase, so does the risk for dependence and addiction.
Long term use of hydrocodone can lead to withdrawal symptoms when the medication is discontinued. Withdrawal effects can be both physical and psychological in nature and may include diarrhea, nausea, rebound pain, insomnia and depression.
While menstrual cramps aren't generally dangerous, severe pain can signal a more serious condition such as endometriosis or ovarian cancer. If you experience menstrual cramps severe enough to interfere with daily functioning, seek medical help to rule out more serious conditions.