Aim The primary aim of this study was to investigate the pain characteristics, academic performance and participation in sports and social activities among students with primary dysmenorrhea (PD) who have different pain intensities and to compare dysmenorrhea-related life impact with pain-free students. Methods Results The present study was conducted on 471 university students with and without PD. Based on Visual Analog Scale score, participants were categorized into four groups: no-pain (n = 60), mild pain (n = 83), moderate pain (n = 165) and severe pain (n = 163). Data on the pain characteristics, impact of dysmenorrhea on university absence, class concentration, participation in sports and social activities were obtained and analyzed with the Kruskal-Wallis, Mann-Whitney U and chi-square tests. University absence, loss of class concentration and the impact on sports and social activities were higher in severe pain group than in no-pain, mild and moderate pain groups (P < 0.001). There were statistically significant differences in the duration of pain, the pattern of pain and the day when maximum pain is perceived among mild, moderate and severe pain groups (P < 0.05). Conclusion The results of the present study present that PD negatively influences academic performance and participation in sports and social activities. Furthermore, pain characteristics differed among the patients with mild, moderate and severe pain. There is a need for further studies that improve treatment options for PD in order to minimize the influence of pain on academic performance and social activities.