When to Be Concerned by Pregnancy Cramps

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on February 2, 2018Written by Jennifer Lacey on September 9, 2015
pregnant woman experiencing cramps

Overview

Most moms-to-be will experience some mild aches and pains throughout pregnancy. After all, your body is changing with each new day. And let’s face it — it’s not that easy to carry around a growing baby!

Cramping can be a normal part of your pregnancy, but sometimes it can be a serious concern. With a little knowledge, you’ll be able to find out just what’s causing your discomfort.

Why am I cramping?

During your first and second trimester, your body is busy working overtime to prepare for your new baby.

The muscles in your uterus will soon begin to stretch and expand. This can cause a pulling feeling on both sides of your stomach. Very early in your pregnancy, you may even feel aches that are similar to those during your period. “Increasing pelvic pressure over the course of pregnancy is quite common,” explained Annette Bond, MD, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.

Early pregnancy side effects

Typical early-pregnancy side effects, such as constipation, can cause cramping. You may also experience cramps while keeping up with your normal exercise routine. This can place additional stress on your muscles. Cramping during exercise is a signal for you to stop and take a well-needed rest.

Infection

Yeast infections or urinary tract infections (UTIs) may also cause cramping. A study from the BMJ stated that up to 6 percent of moms-to-be will develop a UTI during their pregnancy. UTIs can quickly lead to an infection in your kidneys. This increases your risk of going into preterm labor. Your doctor should test your urine at every appointment to make sure that there are no signs of infection.

Sex

Sexual intercourse can also lead to cramping. Many women who are lucky to have a healthy, normal pregnancy can continue to have sex right up until they deliver, according to the nonprofit HealthyWomen.

But during pregnancy, you may find that sex feels somewhat different. It may feel less than pleasurable, due to your expanding tummy. Later in your pregnancy, orgasm can possibly cause you to feel mild contractions. If you feel any of these symptoms after having sex, talk to your doctor.

Ectopic pregnancy

Even though mild cramps are a normal part of pregnancy, you should still talk to your doctor about your discomfort. If you begin to see spotting or bleeding along with your cramps, it could be a sign of miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy.

With a normal pregnancy, your ovary releases an egg into the fallopian tube. When sperm fertilize the egg, it moves into your uterus and attaches into the lining. The egg continues to grow over the next nine months.

American Family Physician says that ectopic pregnancies occur in 1 to 2 percent of pregnancies. The fertilized egg doesn’t move into the uterus, but stays in your fallopian tube. In rare cases, the fertilized egg may attach to one of your ovaries, cervix, or even to your abdomen.

If you experience sharp pains that last longer than a few minutes, you should contact you doctor immediately.

Preeclampsia

Another cause for serious concern is a condition called preeclampsia. Preeclampsia can occur at any time after week 20 of pregnancy. The Preeclampsia Foundation explains that at least 5 to 8 percent of all pregnant women are diagnosed with preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia may lead to pain in the upper-right side of your stomach. This can increase your risk of developing placental abruption, a condition where your placenta breaks off from the uterine wall before delivery.

Your doctor will check your blood pressure and urine at every appointment until you deliver your baby. Protein found in your urine can be a sign of preeclampsia.

Cramps and the third trimester

As you enter your third trimester, you’ll most likely start to feel more pressure in your pelvis. This is quite common, as your baby is growing very quickly now.

Your little one presses down on the nerves that go from your vagina down to your legs. You may feel more pressure and cramping as you walk, as the baby is bouncing around in your belly. Lying down on your side for a while can ease your discomfort. But contact your doctor right away if you feel increasing, steady cramping.

“Cramping during the third trimester is never really considered to be normal for pregnancy,” said Bond. Bond added that if a mom-to-be is experiencing this, she should always seek out advice from her doctor as soon as possible.

While premature labor symptoms can be different in each mom-to-be, Bond added that it’s “important to report any tightening or hardness of your belly, as well as new back pains. Especially if your back pains go along with changes in vaginal discharge.”

SymptomPossible cause
Cramping accompanied by spotting or bleedingMiscarriage or ectopic pregnancy
Pain and cramping in the upper right side of your stomachPreeclampsia
Increased, steady cramping in the third trimesterPremature labor

How can I get some relief?

Don’t feel gloomy about cramps. There are several simple things that you can do to get some relief. Try scaling back on physical activity and avoid cramp-inducing positions. Enjoying a warm bath nightly before bed, and taking moments in the day to rest quietly and comfortably, should also ease your belly.

Wearing a maternity belly band may also offer some comfort from cramping, said Bond. She recommended wearing a simple, Velcro elastic belt under the belly. Make sure it’s adjustable and not too restrictive.

For more about how a belly band can support your pregnancy, check out The 5 Reasons You Need a Pregnancy Belly Band.

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