What is Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

This lesson defines premenstrual syndrome, discusses its symptoms, and lists both lifestyle-based and medicinal treatments for the disorder. In addition, a brief history of PMS is given.

PMS Defined

PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, is a collective term that is given to a group of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that affect many women during the week or two before their periods. Chances are, when your mother or grandmother was a child, very little was known about PMS; in fact, it wasn't even considered a medical condition until about 40 years ago. However, PMS is very real, and it affects a large portion of the menstruating female population. Interestingly, even women who have had hysterectomies, but still have at least one functioning ovary, are subject to its symptoms. So, how do you know if you or someone you know suffers from PMS? Read further to find out...


The media has done a great deal to sensationalize PMS. In fact, it is true that in the United States, a handful of women have blamed their premenstrual symptoms on crimes as serious as murder! While PMS can be irritating, and in extreme cases, it can even seriously interfere with womens' lives, the stereotypical vision of a 30-something year-old woman with a case of premenstrual rage so severe that she kills her husband is just that - a stereotype. That being said, there have been very isolated cases in both the U.S. and the U.K. of women using PMS as a murder defense. In fact, in the 1980's, a twenty-four year old accused of murder was able to successfully use PMS to have her sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter.

But what are the symptoms of PMS? How would you know if you ''had it''? As we mentioned in the definition, PMS has three different types of symptoms: physical, emotional, and behavioral. Listed below are just a few:

Physical Symptoms

  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (can be extreme in some cases)
  • Weight gain related to fluid retention
  • Breast tenderness
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Acne flare-ups
  • Constipation or diarrhea

Emotional Symptoms

  • Tension
  • Anxiety for no apparent reason
  • Depressed mood
  • Food cravings
  • Insomnia
  • Poor concentration

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Mood swings
  • Crying spells
  • Social isolation and withdrawal

Fortunately, the vast majority of women only experience a few of these symptoms, not the entire list! Additionally, everyone seems to have their own ''set'' of PMS symptoms, so it's not likely that a woman is experiencing the same exact combination of symptoms as her peers. However, it is worth mentioning that when symptoms are really, really severe, the condition is no longer called premenstrual syndrome, but rather premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD for short. Think of PMDD as a very extreme form of PMS, one that is severe enough to significantly impact someone's life. For most women, PMS is a more of a nuisance or a bother, but for the handful of women who suffer from PMDD, it can be downright overwhelming.

Treatments for PMS

Unfortunately, there are no laboratory tests or other specific tests that can detect PMS, so gynecologists have to rely on their patients' descriptions of the symptoms in order to prescribe an effective treatment. The good news, though, is that there are a variety of ways to treat the disorder.

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