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Pregnancy health

10 Causes of Pregnancy Cramps

While cramps can be a normal part of pregnancy, it's important to know what to watch out for and ensure it's not something more serious.

10 Causes of Pregnancy Cramps

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During pregnancy, your body goes through a series of physical changes to accommodate your growing baby. One noticeable change is the occurrence of pregnancy cramps, which can happen at any stage of pregnancy. Cramping occurs as your uterus expands and muscles stretch to support your baby's development. These cramps may resemble menstrual cramps, abdominal pain or aches, or pulling sensations in your lower abdomen or hips.

While pregnancy cramps are a normal part of being pregnant, we're turning to women's health experts Melinda Henne, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.O.G and Nava Rubin, Nava Rubin BSN, RNC-OB, for insights on the causes of pregnancy cramps.

How much cramping is normal in early pregnancy?

Pregnancy experiences differ for every woman, and mild cramping is normal. However, it's important to monitor the frequency and intensity of cramps. Rubin says, "If the cramping is increasing in frequency or the pain increases suddenly or dramatically, especially if there is vaginal bleeding present, prompt medical attention is recommended to rule out anything more serious."

There are occasions when you might notice increased cramping, which generally is not a cause for concern. These instances may include sexual intercourse, constipation, gas and bloating, or changes in position. If you notice severe, sharp pains or vaginal bleeding, reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

PRegnant woman with leg cramps Photo: iStockphoto

How long does early pregnancy cramping last?

Dr. Henne explains that early pregnancy cramping typically resolves by the end of the first trimester. It's important to note that cramping can occur for various reasons at different stages of pregnancy. For instance, some women may experience implantation cramping during the early stages of pregnancy, which happens when the fertilized egg implants into the uterus. These cramps usually last for a few days and tend to be milder.

Additionally, Rubin explains that women might encounter round ligament pain in the second trimester caused by the stretching and pulling of the ligaments supporting uterus growth. This pain can be mistaken for contractions since it occurs in waves and may occur frequently throughout the second trimester.

Braxton Hicks contractions often occur during the later stages of pregnancy. Many women mistake Braxton Hicks contractions for labor contractions, but they are not the same. Rubin clarifies, "Braxton Hicks contractions usually occur closer to your due date and are your body's way of getting ready for labor. Think of them as 'practice contractions."

What causes cramping in early pregnancy?

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Below are several factors that may lead to cramping during pregnancy:

Implantation cramping

During the initial stages of pregnancy, some women encounter implantation cramping. These cramps may arise within the first few days and weeks of pregnancy as the fertilized egg implants into the uterus. Typically, they are milder and only last a few days.

Uterine stretching

During pregnancy, the uterus expands to accommodate a growing baby.

Round ligament pain

The most common type of cramping is round ligament pain. The round ligament is a muscle that supports the expanding uterus. When the round ligament stretches, it can feel like pregnancy cramps. Dr. Henne explains that you may experience pain or cramping at the top of the legs.

Young woman in ninth month of pregnancy experiencing contractions and severe pain while sorting baby clothing in a living room Gligatron/ Getty Images

Braxton Hicks

Especially for first-time moms, Braxton Hicks contractions can be confused with labor contractions. Rubin says, "The differences between Braxton Hicks contractions and labor contractions are that Braxton Hicks are usually milder in nature, do not increase in strength, are further apart, do not get longer in duration, and usually go away with rest and hydration." Braxton Hicks are "practice contractions" to prepare the body for labor, but they don't signal the onset of labor.

Dehydration

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Pregnant women have higher hydration needs and are more susceptible to dehydration. Rubin explains, "Just like any other muscle in the body, the uterus can cramp if you are not well hydrated." Rubin recommends drinking 8 to 12 cups of water a day and advises against high-caffeine beverages, which can contribute to more frequent urination and exacerbate dehydration.

Urinary tract infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common during pregnancy, and they can cause painful urination as well as uterine cramping.

Sex

Engaging in sexual intercourse can lead to cramping, either due to orgasms or the release of hormones during sex.

Gastrointestinal issues

It's typical for the body to undergo gastrointestinal changes during pregnancy. Some women may encounter constipation, while others may experience increased gas and bloating. These gastrointestinal changes can trigger pregnancy cramps.

Miscarriage

Cramping might indicate a sign of miscarriage and is characterized by sharp and painful cramps and heavy bleeding. Dr. Henne explains that miscarriage cramping typically involves "more significant cramping, often with bleeding."

Signs of an ectopic pregnancy

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Dr. Henne explains that cramping can occur in cases of an ectopic pregnancy, which is when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. This type of cramping is the most dangerous kind and is typically characterized by severe pain. If you suspect an ectopic pregnancy, contact your healthcare professional right away.

Experts

  • Melinda Henne, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.O.G is a Reproductive Endocrinologist specializing in infertility and reproductive health.
  • Nava Rubin, BSN, RNC-OB, is a registered nurse specializing in labor and delivery.

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