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Cramping While Pregnant

Cramping While Pregnant

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Cramping During Pregnancy

As an expecting mom, you’re ecstatic about bringing a new life into your home. So, when you begin to experience cramping during pregnancy, alarm bells go off in your head. There can be nothing scarier for a mom-to-be than to have cramps during pregnancy that are outside of normal labor pains.

 

You want everything to go perfectly as you cross your fingers for a perfect pregnancy only to be followed by the perfect birth experience.

 

Unfortunately, perfect pregnancies are as rare as hen’s teeth as many women eventually find out. Thankfully, most issues that crop up during pregnancy are just minor annoyances and that includes cramping.

 

Cramping during pregnancy is pretty common, particularly in the early stages. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that there’s trouble in Babyland or that you’re having a miscarriage.

 

So, what do those cramps mean and how will it affect your pregnancy? Let’s learn more.

 

IS CRAMPING NORMAL DURING PREGNANCY?

While there are some telltale signs that your cramps may be a sign of something more ominous, most cramping experienced by pregnant women early during the pregnancy is quite common.

 

One study published in Oxford University Press evaluated 341 women who were less than 20 weeks pregnant. 85% of those women reported lower abdominal cramping.

 

So, while it’s clear that the majority of pregnant women experience some level of cramping, most will give birth to a healthy and bouncing baby boy or girl.

 

WHAT DO EARLY PREGNANCY CRAMPS FEEL LIKE?

Many women say that cramps early on in pregnancy don’t feel much different than period cramps. And when you think about what goes on during your first trimester, it’s not that different than what goes on when you’re having a period.

 

Your uterus and belly are expanding while shifting things around. So, you’ll often feel stretching, pulling, and pressure as your belly grows to accommodate your mini-me.

 

You may feel mild or moderate cramping in your lower abdomen or back just like you did with your monthly cycle.

 

It’s important to remember one thing - early pregnancy cramps should never be severe. So as long as your cramps are mild, you likely have nothing to worry about.

 

WHEN TO CALL A DOCTOR

Now that you know what’s normal when it comes to experiencing cramps at the beginning of your pregnancy, you probably want to know what clues to look for that might signal a problem.

 

These signs should have you reaching for your phone and dialing your doctor’s number asap.

 

  • Pain that doesn’t stop or go away
  • Pain levels that are severe rather than minor or moderate nuisances
  • Vaginal bleeding, particularly if it’s heavy, or an unusual discharge
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Pain in your shoulder or neck
  • Cramps in your vaginal area
  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Pain, burning, or trouble urinating

 

If you experience any of the above, contact your doctor immediately. While some of these symptoms could be directly related to your pregnancy, some could mean trouble elsewhere, such as a kidney or bladder infection.

 

Either way, cramping during pregnancy, along with any of these symptoms, needs to be evaluated right away.

 pregnant woman with doctor

 

HOW LONG WILL CRAMPING LAST IN EARLY PREGNANCY?

The length of time you can expect your cramping to last will depend on what’s causing your cramps in the first place. Implantation cramps are one of the top reasons pregnant women experience cramping early on. Implantation cramps will usually last one to three days.

 

When your cramps are due to your expanding uterus, you can expect mild pain occasionally throughout your early pregnancy. But, the cramps shouldn’t last long when the pain does hit.

 

Any type of lingering pain beyond those boundaries warrants a visit with your obstetrician or midwife. Cramping that is usually due to something that’s wrong won’t usually go away on its own and will probably get worse with time.

 

REASONS FOR CRAMPING DURING PREGNANCY

Cramping during pregnancy can normal or it could mean something’s wrong. The key is to distinguish what’s causing your cramps so you can take action if you need to.

 

Harmless Causes for Cramping When Pregnant

  • Implantation cramps: Sometimes these cramps are the first sign that you’re pregnant. They usually occur within a couple of weeks of becoming pregnant and happens when the egg attaches itself to the wall of your uterus. You might also experience some very light spotting, but it should be minor and occur for only a few days.
  • Anatomical changes: Cramping during the first trimester in pregnancy is often the result of the changes your body is undergoing. As your baby develops and grows, your uterus and abdomen will expand to accommodate your baby. The muscles and ligaments that support your uterus will stretch. This can make your abdomen feel as though there’s tugging and pulling on either side of your abdomen.
  • Changing positions: You might notice more cramps when you change positions, such as when you turn over during bedtime or when you reach for something overhead. Many pregnant women also notice that coughing and sneezing tend to bring on minor cramps. Sex can even bring on your cramps. Usually, these are no cause for concern as long as the cramps are mild and don’t linger.
  • Round ligament pain: As your pregnancy progresses into your second trimester, round ligament pain is a common occurrence. When the structures that support your uterus stretch, the ligaments become softer and are easily irritated. This can cause you to get a stabbing sensation or spasm in your lower abdomen. Some women say instead of sharp pain, the right side of their belly or pelvis just feels achy, although the pain can also be felt on the left side. Vigorous activity can bring on the pain as can other changing of positions.
  • Gas and bloating: Women don’t like to admit it, but when you’re pregnant, passing gas is almost a given. And the reason is simple. When you’re pregnant, it’s common to experience bloating. Pregnant women have more progesterone in their bodies and this causes your muscles to relax more. Not to mention that your abdomen is already overcrowded and all that gas has to escape somewhere. You might burp or fart, but it has to go. And the progesterone in your body makes it harder to control. Don’t take it too seriously. It happens to the best of us. Cramps might accompany some of that flatulence as it makes its way through your digestive system.
  • Constipation: Unfortunately, the progesterone hormones that cause your muscles to relax can also cause food and waste to move more slowly through your digestive system. Also, the iron tablets so often prescribed during pregnancy can cause constipation. This, in turn, can cause your bowel movements to become more infrequent and difficult. You can experience cramping and discomfort as your stools harden. You’re not alone. Fifty percent of women become constipated during their pregnancy.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions. Good ole’ Braxton Hicks contractions have fooled many pregnant women into thinking something’s wrong or that they’re in labor. Braxton Hicks tend to occur later in your pregnancy rather than earlier. Real labor pains will get closer and closer together while Braxton Hicks contractions eventually go away. Drinking plenty of water can help prevent these types of contractions from happening.

Serious Causes for Cramping When Pregnant

Unfortunately, cramping during pregnancy can sometimes signal a problem. Some of the signs can occur earlier in the pregnancy, while others will occur much closer to your due date.

 

  • Miscarriage: This is the word no expectant mother wants to hear. Research shows that between 10% and 25% of pregnancies result in a miscarriage and most miscarriages happen during the first trimester. If you miscarry, you’ll experience spotting and cramping, which can be either sharp or mild. It’s possible to have spotting and cramping and still end up having a healthy baby. It’s important to report symptoms of cramping and bleeding to your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Ectopic pregnancy: When a fertilized egg is implanted outside of the uterus, the result is an ectopic pregnancy. This can cause horrible cramping that typically occurs in the lower abdomen. Ectopic pregnancy is serious and must be treated right away.
  • Placental abruption: Sometimes, the placenta separates from the uterus prematurely, before your baby is born. If this happens, you’ll get severe cramps that don’t go away. Placental abruption is serious and you should see your doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency room if you suspect that this is happening to you.
  • Premature labor: Cramping due to preterm labor will occur later in your pregnancy. Symptoms include abdominal pain and cramping as well as increased pressure in your abdomen and cervix. Your cervix will also dilate before your 37th week if you go into labor too soon.
  • Pre-eclampsia: Pre-eclampsia is a serious medical condition for you and can place your health and that of your unborn baby in jeopardy. If you develop pre-eclampsia, you’ll have protein in your urine and high blood pressure. OBGYN doctors monitor their patients for pre-eclampsia and may notice signs before you do. If you experience cramping due to pre-eclampsia, you’ll have intense pain in the upper part of your abdomen.
  • Urinary infections: If you have lower abdominal pain or cramping and it hurts to urinate, you may have a urinary tract infection. If your UTI is treated early, you should recover well with no long-term effect on you or your baby. This is why it’s important to treat these types of infections the moment you first notice symptoms.

 

As you can see, sometimes cramping during pregnancy has relatively minor causes and are no cause for concern. But, if you have symptoms of the more serious causes of cramping while pregnant, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or go to the ER. It’s better to err on the side of caution and it is a false alarm, rather than have a serious issue that could benefit from early intervention.

 

HOW TO TREAT CRAMPS DURING PREGNANCY

If your cramps are more serious, obviously you need to see your medical provider for treatment. But, if your cramps are minor, there are things you can do to treat your cramps while you’re pregnant.

 

  • First, try to remain calm and be as relaxed as possible. You can even do some relaxation exercises to encourage your body and mind to relax.
  • Try changing positions. Just as we pointed out that changing positions can bring on your cramps, it makes sense that changing positions might also ease your cramps. If you’re sitting, try standing or laying down. If you’re standing, try sitting.
  • Take a warm bath. You’ve probably done this before during your period. The same thinking applies. A warm bath with added Epsom salts can help relieve cramps caused by stressed abdominal ligaments and muscles. Alternatively, you can wrap up a hot water bottle and place it on the area that’s cramping.
  • Make sure you stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water will help prevent constipation and help maintain a healthy urinary tract.
  • Exercise mildly. The key is to not overdo it. But, a little exercise may strengthen those weakening abdominal muscles. Gentle yoga is perfect during pregnancy. Just make sure to avoid lying on your back for too long once you’ve made it past the first trimester as this could prevent your baby from getting the blood flow he or she needs.
  • Get plenty of rest and eat a healthy diet. We’re not saying to watch every episode of Gilmore Girls twice and lay horizontal all ten months. Just make sure you’re well-rested and that all things are at a healthy balance -- eating healthy, limiting caffeine intake, mild exercise, and relaxing when it’s feasible. After all, once your little bundle of joy comes, an overabundance of rest will be a thing of the past.

 

American Pregnancy Association, Miscarriage, October 2019.

Mayo Clinic, Healthy pregnancy, December 2018.

Mayo Clinic, What Causes Round Ligament Pain During Pregnancy, April 2018.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Ectopic Pregnancy, February 2018.

Mayo Clinic, Placental Abruption, January 2018.

National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Signs and symptoms associated with early pregnancy loss: findings from a population-based preconception cohort, April 2016.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Urinary Tract Infections, May 2015.

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  • Phyllis Breaux
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