Each person may experience abortion differently. What might feel painful for one person may not be for another. Some people might not find it painful at all. For those who do, the degree of pain can depend on a variety of factors.

Keep reading for more on what to expect from a medical or surgical abortion and questions to ask your healthcare professional.

The short answer is that it’s different for everyone. No one can tell you exactly how it will feel.

Some people compare the process to menstrual cramps, while others report more discomfort.

Whether it hurts depends on several unique factors, such as:

  • your overall health, including underlying medical conditions
  • how far along the pregnancy is
  • your general pain tolerance
  • your emotions and stress level

What you might feel during an abortion also depends on the type of abortion you have.

Medicated abortion is done using the abortion pill during the first trimester.

Your healthcare professional will administer two drugs:

  • oral mifepristone (Mifeprex)
  • misoprostol (Cytotec)

Although misoprostol is usually taken orally, it can be taken vaginally, buccally (between your teeth and cheek), or sublingually (under the tongue).

These drugs block pregnancy hormones and also cause uterine contractions to push the embryo out. It can take 4 or 5 hours for tissue to be expelled.

This process causes vaginal bleeding somewhat heavier than what’s considered a typical period, so you’ll need a good supply of pads. A medicated abortion can be painful, especially for people with a history of painful and heavy menstrual cycles.

You’ll also pass some rather large clots. This will slow down after a few days, but you may continue to bleed or spot for a couple of weeks.

Your experience

Medicated abortion may cause:

  • mild to severe cramping
  • headache
  • breast tenderness
  • upset stomach
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • low grade fever
  • chills
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • fatigue

These side effects usually clear up in 1 to 2 days. Vaginal, buccal, or sublingual medications may have fewer side effects than oral medications.

How to minimize pain

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the most severe pain could occur about 2 1/2 to 4 hours after taking misoprostol. The pain may last about 1 hour.

Talk with your healthcare professional about taking an over-the-counter (OTC) medication beforehand, such as ibuprofen. This may help reduce your risk of cramping. You should not take aspirin because it can increase bleeding.

If you tend to get nauseous, you should also ask about anti-nausea medication. Your healthcare professional may advise you to take this beforehand or wait until you begin experiencing symptoms.

They may also prescribe stronger pain medication or other medications to help relieve discomfort.

You may also find it helpful to:

  • Try and schedule the process on a day you can stay at home.
  • Wear loose clothing for the first couple of days.
  • Use a heating pad or hot water bottle on your abdomen to help relieve cramping.
  • Use pillows to prop yourself up in a comfortable position.
  • Try deep breathing exercises.
  • Take a long, warm shower.
  • Ask someone to rub your back.

Surgical abortion starts out similarly to a pelvic exam. Your healthcare professional will ask you to rest your feet in the table’s stirrups and use a speculum to inspect your vagina and cervix.

After that, they’ll apply numbing medication and dilate your cervix. Then, they’ll insert a small, flexible tube into your uterus. The tube is attached to a gentle suction device, which is used to empty the contents of your uterus.

Your doctor may also gently scrape the inside of your uterus with a small, loop-shaped tool. This is called curettage, or more commonly dilation and curettage (D&C). This will ensure that your uterus is completely empty.

If the pregnancy is more than 15 weeks along, your healthcare professional will use a combination of suction, curettage, and extraction with forceps to completely empty the uterus.

What you’ll feel

You may start to feel uterine cramping and experience bleeding right away. This may continue for several weeks.

Other potential side effects include:

How to minimize pain

Most healthcare professionals will administer local anesthesia before performing a surgical abortion. You may also be instructed to take pain medication prior.

You can request to be sedated. Your provider can give you a mild dose of general anesthesia (“twilight sedation”) or an oral sedative to help block pain and reduce anxiety.

You’ll remain conscious during the procedure but won’t remember what happened. You’ll feel “out of it” until the anesthesia wears off, so you’ll need someone to drive you home afterward.

After the procedure

You can take OTC medications like ibuprofen to help ease your symptoms. As with a medicated abortion, avoid aspirin, as it may increase post-abortion bleeding.

You can also apply a heating pad or hot water bottle to your abdomen to ease cramping. Wearing loose clothing for the first few days can also minimize the pressure on your abdomen.

To feel pain, humans must be able to transmit signals from peripheral sensory nerves to the brain. We also need certain brain structures to process those signals.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, rigorous scientific studies have found that the connections necessary to process pain signals don’t develop until at least the 24th week of gestation.

However, other research suggests that neural pathways responsible for feeling pain could become activated earlier, though the research on this not exactly clear.

Current laws do not allow abortions performed after 24 weeks, as the pregnancy is then considered viable.

Any medical procedure comes with some risk.

For abortion, the risks include:

  • infection
  • prolonged or severe bleeding
  • incomplete medicated abortion requiring further intervention
  • unplanned pregnancy and potential coping if a medical abortion doesn’t work

However, when properly conducted by medical professionals, abortion is usually very safe. In fact, legal induced abortion has a mortality rate of only 0.7 per 100,000 procedures overall.

An uncomplicated abortion will not affect your ability to get pregnant again. In fact, pregnancy can happen right away.

The emotional aspects of having an abortion are different for everyone. A lot depends on your reasons for having the procedure, what stressors may have been involved, and whether you have a solid support system.

You may feel relieved, grateful, and quickly ready to move on. Or you may feel sadness, guilt, or a sense of loss. You might even have a mixture of all these feelings. There is not a right or wrong way to feel.

If you’re experiencing negative emotions that are interfering with your daily life, you may find it helpful to consult a healthcare or mental health care professional. They can help you healthily work through your emotions.

Having an abortion and deciding which type are big decisions, so getting the information you need upfront is important.

To know what to expect, speak with your healthcare professional about the following:

  • any underlying medical conditions you have
  • medical versus surgical abortion, including how they work, and the pros and cons
  • what you need to do to prepare
  • recovery time
  • potential side effects and what to do about them
  • symptoms that mean you should call your doctor
  • what you need to know about birth control after an abortion
  • alternative options for the pregnancy, including adoption

Remember, abortion laws vary depending on where you live. The Center for Reproductive Rights can tell you what the law on abortion is in your state.