Upper abdominal pain during pregnancy may just be a symptom of heartburn or gas, but it could also signal something requiring medical treatment.
Nausea, cramping, and muscle pain. Aches and pains are a part of the pregnancy journey. When it’s your body, though, you may be wondering whether these discomforts are normal or concerning.
How can you tell if that pain you’re feeling in your upper stomach is a sign that your baby is growing or that your body needs help?
While we can’t promise to know exactly what is going on with your body, the following information explains some of the common causes of upper stomach pain during pregnancy and some general guidelines for when it’s a good idea to reach out to your doctor. Interested? Here we go…
Wondering why you’re experiencing that upper stomach pain? Some possible causes, from the more common issues to the rare, include:
High levels of progesterone are relaxing your intestinal muscles, so gas may happen at any point in your pregnancy. You may experience it even more than usual toward the end of your pregnancy when your enlarged uterus puts extra strain on your muscles and slows digestion.
If you are experiencing gas, try eating smaller meals more often. You’ll also want to identify and avoid foods that are making you feel gassy. (Sadly, all your favorite fried and greasy foods are likely culprits.) You may also want to increase the amount of exercise you’re getting, since this can aid digestion.
If you’re experiencing constipation (or just worried that you might!), simple changes can go a long way. You might consider:
- drinking more water
- eating smaller meals more frequently (keeping an eye out for fruits and vegetables high in fiber)
If this is becoming a more frequent or serious problem, your doctor can also prescribe a stool softener.
You can feel heartburn during any stage in your pregnancy, but it’s most common in the second and third trimesters. According to a 2015 study,
It’s likely linked to the hormone progesterone loosening the muscle that normally keeps acid from traveling from the stomach up the esophagus.
Other reasons for heartburn include your growing uterus putting extra pressure on your stomach causing acids to spill out and slowed digestion increasing the risk of heartburn.
So, what can you do?
- Eat frequent, small meals sitting up straight. (Give yourself about 3 hours between eating and bedtime!).
- Avoid drinking beverages with meals.
- Sleep with your head elevated.
- Wear loose fitting clothes.
- Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
- Avoid acidic foods and drinks.
- Avoid caffeine.
You can also try acupuncture or speaking to your doctor about medication options if it gets really bad.
Skin stretching and/or muscle pain
As your pregnancy continues into the second and third trimesters, your growing bump may stretch your skin tight. The added weight can also put extra pressure on your muscles.
In addition to remembering to moisturize to keep your skin hydrated and stretch marks to a minimum, you may find maternity belts/belly bands helpful when the weight of your growing belly is bothering you. (Another way to help support the extra weight and ease discomforts is with a pair of supportive maternity leggings.)
Pregnancy pillows can help you find a supported position for your body to rest while lounging, watching tv, or sleeping.
Most commonly felt in the third trimester (although many women report them in the second trimester as well), Braxton-Hicks contractions can certainly cause some abdominal discomfort, but are not a major issue.
If you are experiencing these, try changing positions and drinking more water. Usually this will help to reduce Braxton-Hicks contractions.
If you find that your contractions aren’t stopping and are increasing in frequency, length, and pain before 37 weeks’ gestation, you should contact your doctor immediately as you may be in preterm labor.
Miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy
Severe abdominal pain and cramping in the first 20 weeks may be a sign that the pregnancy is ending or not viable.
- severe cramping or pain
- heavy spotting
- vaginal discharge
- rectal pressure
- sharp waves of pain in the back, pelvis, shoulders, or neck
You should contact your doctor immediately if you have reason to believe that you are miscarrying or have an ectopic pregnancy.
If you have a history of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, or are a teenager or over the age of 35, you have an increased risk of being one of the roughly
While preeclampsia typically occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy, you may experience it earlier.
If you experience the following, you should contact your doctor immediately:
- high blood pressure
- frequent headaches
- changes in vision
- sudden weight gain
- abnormal swelling in the hands and face
Other illness or issue
Sometimes even pregnant people are subject to illness or issues unrelated to their pregnancy. Possible causes of upper stomach pain unrelated to pregnancy include:
- kidney stones
- kidney infection
- food allergies and sensitivities
If you believe that these are the cause of your stomach pains, you’ll want to speak with your doctor right away. Further testing and medical treatment will likely be required.
Cholestasis occurs when the bile flowing from your liver is off. This can lead to a buildup of bilirubin and present added risks to your pregnancy.
Symptoms of cholestastis include:
- excessive itching
- dark urine
- light-colored stools
Although this only happens in about 1 of 1000 pregnancies, this is another time when you’ll want to notify your doctor of your symptoms. They can perform tests, monitor your levels, and make sure that your little one is staying safe. (They can also prescribe some medications to help with the itch!)
Although bleeding is the most frequent sign of a placental abruption (when the placenta detaches before it’s time to give birth, sometime in the second or third trimester), blood may be blocked by the shifted placenta or the amniotic sac.
Other symptoms to keep an eye out for include:
- tenderness in the abdomen
- sudden stomach/back pain
- cramping that doesn’t relax
- decreased fetal movement
These symptoms typically get worse as time passes.
While this is fairly rare (only about 1 in 100 women will experience this), it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible for the baby’s safety if you experience signs of a placental abruption.
You may still be wondering whether should you be concerned and seeking immediate attention for your specific pain. While it’s not always cut and dry, there are some general guidelines that can assist you in deciding whether or not to call your doctor.
You should reach out to your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:
- unusual vaginal discharge
- pain when urinating
- decreased fetal movement
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. You should always notify your doctor if something feels off or you’re concerned. Your doctor can reassure you that everything is normal or provide access to the resources you need to address any problems.
While aches and pains may be part of the pregnancy experience, they can also be signs that your body is asking you to slow down, change your diet, or seek medical assistance.
If you’re feeling upper stomach pain (or low belly pain), it’s important to consider why you might be feeling it and think about what other symptoms you may be experiencing.
If you suspect something is wrong it’s essential to notify your healthcare provider as soon as possible. For some conditions, seeking medical help sooner rather than later can make a big difference in the prognosis.