I enjoy sharing my expertise on pregnancy, as I am experienced in trying to conceive, being pregnant, giving birth, and breastfeeding.
Cramping during pregnancy can occur for a number of reasons, but first-time mothers in particular are often frightened of what it means when those first pains appear early on in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester.
If you're concerned about cramping, this article should help you to determine if you should be worried about what the cramps mean. You should always feel encouraged to call your doctor or midwife with any questions you may have about your pregnancy, but in the meantime, continue reading for more information on the common causes of cramping during pregnancy.
Benign Reasons You May Be Cramping During Early Pregnancy
The following are some benign causes of cramping during roughly the first half of pregnancy.
This is likely the first type of cramping you will experience. You may not even know you have conceived at this point. The body doesn't begin producing pregnancy hormones until after implantation occurs. Therefore, a pregnancy test won't give a positive result until there is sufficient hCG in your urine to measure. "This typically occurs one week following ovulation," says Dr. Mark Trolice, a fertility specialist at the IVF Center in Winter Park, Florida. "While the bleeding and/or cramping is light and short-lived, implantation bleeding is not necessary for a healthy pregnancy nor is it ominous for a miscarriage."
Implantation cramping feels fairly similar to menstrual cramps. A good indicator in telling the difference is that you may experience some light bleeding. This is all the result of the fertilized egg attaching to the uterine wall. The bleeding should only last a day.
According to Dr. Krissi Danielsson, a physician at Prevea Family Health Medicine in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the growth of the uterus during the first trimester can cause mild to moderate cramping in the lower abdomen or back. This is due to ligaments and muscles stretching. It can feel like menstrual cramps or like pressure is being applied. This is completely normal and should be no cause for alarm.
Early pregnancy symptoms
Some of the first signs of pregnancy can cause cramps as a side effect. This can include constipation, gas and bloating, or increased blood flow to the uterus. You can check out this article for a more in-depth look at early pregnancy symptoms.
Cramping During Late Pregnancy
Here are some causes of cramping that can occur during the latter half of pregnancy.
Round ligament pain
The round ligament is the muscle that supports the uterus. According to WhatToExpect, this muscle will begin to stretch around the second trimester to support the growing baby. You may feel pain on the side of the abdomen and the pain may spread to the hip or groin. Pain can be triggered by any slight movements such as getting out of bed or laughing. This can be concerning for first time mothers but this discomfort is completely normal.
Braxton Hicks contractions
These can be thought of as practice contractions. They begin around the 20th week of pregnancy and prepare your body for labor. These are irregular and don't last very long. Dehydration can play a part in these contractions. You can read this article for more info on contractions.
If contractions are coming in every 10 minutes and don't stop when you change positions, you may be going into labor. Pressure is usually felt around the pelvic area. If you think you are in labor, immediately call your doctor or visit a hospital.
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When Pregnancy Cramps Can Be a Serious Problem
Here are some cases where cramping can be a sign of a major problem.
This is a serious condition where a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, usually within the fallopian tube. Treatment is necessary since this is a life-threatening condition. It usually comes in the form of medication or surgery in more dire cases. "Signs of an ectopic pregnancy are vaginal bleeding, lower abdominal pain/cramping, and an abnormal rise of hCG levels," says Dr. Trolice. "A transvaginal ultrasound is the gold standard to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy and is used in conjunction with hCG levels to determine the expected appropriate stage of pregnancy seen on an ultrasound and based on the hCG level." According to the American Pregnancy Association, an ectopic pregnancy occurs in one out of every 50 pregnancies. You can read this article for a personal account of an ectopic pregnancy.
Ruptured ovarian cyst
"Following ovulation, the cyst that released the egg becomes a corpus luteum and produces progesterone to support the pregnancy for approximately eight weeks, when the placenta replaces the corpus luteum for hormone production," says Dr. Trolice. "During this time, the cyst can rupture, causing significant lower abdominal pain/cramping. This could result in the possible need for surgery to remove the cyst." If this occurs prior to the eight week of pregnancy, the mother will need supplemental progesterone before the placenta produces its own.
Mild to severe cramps along with vaginal bleeding may be a sign of a miscarriage. It should be noted that some women can have both symptoms and carry on with a healthy pregnancy. A more substantial sign is the presence of tissue passing through. Most miscarriages occur within the first 13 weeks.
This is a condition where a mother suffers from high blood pressure. According to the Mayo Clinic, it usually appears about 20 weeks into a pregnancy where a mother had normal blood pressure levels. Pre-eclampsia can cause a variety of problems such as fetal growth restriction and preterm birth. The only real cure for the condition is to give birth, which can be problematic if it appears early in pregnancy.
This is essentially when labor begins earlier than 37 weeks. This is dangerous since a baby is not yet fully developed and they could be plagued with serious health problems. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, only about 10% of women suffering from preterm labor will give birth within the next seven days. 30% of women will actually have their labor stop.
Urinary tract infection
This is a bacterial infection of the urinary tract. According to Healthline, this infection is rather common as it appears in between two to 10 percent of all pregnancies. The growing fetus places pressure on the bladder and urinary tract. Combined with an expanding urethra, this cause bacteria to settle in and expand, leading to infections. Along with cramps, other symptoms can include a fever or a burning discomfort when using the restroom. Treatment is needed immediately since a UTI can lead to a kidney infection, which can harm the baby. A UTI can be safely treated with antibiotics.
This is a serious condition where the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. This happens naturally at the last stage of labor but if it occurs early then your baby may not get enough oxygen and nutrients. This could lead to growth problems, a premature birth, or a stillbirth. According to March of Dimes, this condition occurs in one out of every 100 pregnancies. There can be mild cases where only a small part of the placenta separates. These are usually not dangerous. Treatment depends on how sever the case is. In severe cases, a mother may need to deliver immediately.
Medication During Pregnancy
The aches, pains, and cramps during pregnancy may make you want to reach for some painkillers. You should not take any type of medication without first consulting a doctor. This even includes over-the-counter medicine. Ideally, you should try avoiding all unnecessary medication during your pregnancy. It's best that you attempt to find holistic healing methods or something homeopathic to help you with the pain that you're experiencing.
According to WebMD, acetaminophen is the most commonly allowed medicine for pregnant women. Even so, it is recommended that small doses are taken for as little time as possible. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen are not recommended as they can potentially cause heart problems for your baby. Opioid painkillers are generally not recommended by doctors during pregnancy.
Severe Cramping During Pregnancy is Never Good
Severe cramping during pregnancy—such as that you have trouble catching your breath—is never a good sign. If you're experiencing unusual cramping (that which doesn't feel familiar, like period pains), call your doctor right away! This type of cramping can indicate a problem, including miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. You'll need to have an ultrasound to reveal the condition of your pregnancy and determine whether or not your pregnancy remains viable (whether the fetus is still living, or exists at all). Call your doctor for advice.
Remember, if you are experiencing cramping accompanied with bleeding during pregnancy, visit the hospital's ER right away! The combination of bleeding and cramping often indicates that miscarriage is already occurring, and you will need medical confirmation and, if you choose, a D&C (dilation & curettage).
- Abdominal Cramps and Pain During Pregnancy: Normal or Something More? (2016, August 17). From WhatToExpect.
- Danielsson, K. Pregnancy Cramps: Should You Be Worried? From VeryWellFamily.
- Ectopic Pregnancy: Symptoms, Causes, Risks and Treatment. (2017, July 20). From American Pregnancy Association.
- Placental abruption. From March of Dimes.
- Preeclampsia. (2018, April 03). From Mayo Clinic.
- Preterm (Premature) Labor and Birth. From The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
- UTI During Pregnancy: How to Treat. From Healthline.
- What Pain Relievers Are Safe During Pregnancy? From WebMD.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2014 Becki Rizzuti
Clare on October 05, 2019:
Becky... I am going to be be blunt. What, apart from having four children, is your qualification? I think it is safer for pregnant women to be seeking advice from people with significant experience and expertise, rather than just a personal interest. Some poorly educated women may actually come to this site for information and act on what they read here. They shouldn’t, they should look for information written by, or speak directly to, people who know what they are talking about. I am sorry to rain on your parade but I think it’s ill advised to have a site like this.
raytee on September 21, 2019:
now i know symptoms of pregnancy I'll always make sure that don't crave for something stupid thanks alot
Jh on January 07, 2018:
This was the most annoying article I’ve read in awhile. Most of the article was just explaining about what the article was about