Cramping During Pregnancy

By Stephanie Watson @WatsonWriter
October 04, 2016

When cramps could signal something serious. 

Pregnancy is a time of great excitement and anticipation. Those 40-or-so weeks can also bring quite a bit of worry, especially if this is your first time expecting. If you’re seeing an obstetrician for regular prenatal checkups (which you should be), your doctor has likely told you about warning signs like bleeding or cramping that could signal a problem with your pregnancy.

Aches and pains are common during pregnancy. Not every twinge is worth worrying or calling your doctor about. Yet it’s important to know the difference between normal pregnancy-related cramps and something more serious, so you can take the right action.


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Cramping: What’s normal during pregnancy

In the first few months of your pregnancy, you might notice a mild, period-like cramping in your abdomen. This is likely the embryo implanting in the wall of your uterus, and no cause for alarm.

Later on, your expanding belly will start to pull on muscles and ligaments. You might feel an ache or pain across your belly as these connective tissues stretch. The discomfort can get more intense when you get out of bed, exercise, or cough. You can relieve this type of cramp by soaking in a warm bath or putting a heating pad (warm, not hot) on the area.

GI troubles are another unpleasant side effect of late pregnancy, as food moves more slowly through your GI tract and your growing uterus puts pressure on your stomach. Gas, bloating, constipation, and heartburn are all common complaints. Your doctor can give you tips to help ease these symptoms — like taking a stool softener or adding fiber to your diet.

Closer to your due date, you might start to feel cramping in your uterus, called Braxton-Hicks contractions. You can tell them from real labor cramps by their frequency and strength. Braxton-Hicks contractions come at irregular intervals, and they don’t get progressively stronger. If your contractions start getting closer together and become increasingly painful, you could be in real labor. Call your doctor.


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Serious pregnancy problems that cause cramping

Mild cramps, aches, or stomach discomfort are likely nothing to worry about. Yet a few conditions that cause cramps are more serious, and they warrant a call to your doctor. 

Miscarriage or preterm labor. About 10 to 15 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, which is the loss of a baby before the 20th week. Cramps are one sign that you’re having a miscarriage, but you’ll likely notice vaginal bleeding along with the pain. When the cramps come after 20 weeks but before your 37th week, they could be preterm labor

Ectopic pregnancy. Normally, the fertilized egg implants in the wall of the uterus. In an ectopic pregnancy, it attaches outside of the uterus. This type of pregnancy is life threatening and needs to be treated right away. 

Preeclampsia. High blood pressure during pregnancy is dangerous to both you and your baby. If you have this condition, you’ll notice pain in the upper part of your abdomen. You might need to be treated with medicines to lower your blood pressure, or deliver your baby early to prevent complications.

Placental abruption. Rarely, the placenta that nourishes your baby can separate from the wall of the uterus. When placental abruption happens, it can prevent the baby from getting nutrients, and cause you to bleed excessively. Abdominal pain and contractions are symptoms of this dangerous condition.

Listeriosis. Cramps that are accompanied by a fever, diarrhea, and muscle aches could warn of listeriosis. Women are 13 times more likely to get this foodborne illness during pregnancy if they eat contaminated foods like deli meats and unpasteurized milk. “Not only are pregnant women especially susceptible to listeriosis infections, but because the infection may spread into and across the placenta, infection also puts their fetus at significant risk,” said Jeffrey L. Ecker, MD, chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Obstetric Practice.

When to call your doctor

Intense cramping or pain during pregnancy is never normal. Call your doctor right away if you have:

• Severe or sharp pain

• Pain on only one side of your body

• Pain that lasts more than a few hours

Also call if you have these symptoms along with the pain:

• Bleeding from your vagina

• Fever

• Dizziness

• Nausea or vomiting


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October 04, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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