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Cramping in Pregnancy: Why it Happens and When to Worry

by Katlyn Joy | August 22, 2012
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When first pregnant you may be hypersensitive to every symptom and concerned what each twinge or ache means. Is it normal or ominous? Should I rest and wait for it to pass, or call the doctor? Do I forgot the call and head straight to the ER?

Different Types of Cramps

In very early pregnancy, you will feel a variety of sensations from the odd to the downright uncomfortable. Cramping is one expected type of early pregnancy symptom.

You may experience cramps from implantation, which is when the embryo imbeds into the uterine wall. This may cause cramping low in the abdomen and around the time you'd expect your period to start. In fact, you may even experience some light spotting as well making you wonder if you got your period or not.

Some women develop cysts on their ovaries around ovulation, and these growths called corpus luteum cysts are nothing to worry about but may cause pain at times. The cysts will produce progesterone until the placenta is up and running well enough to produce the hormone itself.

Adjusting to pregnancy takes some time, so expect some aches, cramps or even shooting pains at times in a number of spots from the abdomen, to your side, the vagina, vulva or even your lower back. The reason is your body is getting ready to grow a baby, and that involves some big changes including aching, stretching ligaments and an expanding and strengthening uterus.

Women who have already experienced childbirth may feel strong pain when rising from sitting or lying down. This sharp pain is from weakened tendons in the groin area and requires exercise to strengthen it. Walking throughout pregnancy will ease both this symptom and labor pains later.

In the 2nd trimester, there will likely be more ligament pain as your pregnancy bump expands and is heavier a load to carry. This ligament pain may be sharp especially when standing up, or may be more of an achy band across your lower belly.

Mid to late pregnancy you may experience cramps due to false labor, also known as Braxton Hicks contractions. While it may fool you enough to make a hospital run to check it out, don't feel too defeated if you are sent home. These can be seen as practice contractions, warms up for the real thing.

When Cramping May be More Serious

1. If you have symptoms of pre-term labor, including lower back pain, hardening of your abdomen in pulses or contractions, leaking or increase in vaginal discharge, pelvic fullness or pressure, cramping that feels like your period is around the corner, feeling like or actually having diarrhea and bleeding or spotting, you need to head to the hospital to be checked. Any labor that occurs before the 37th week is considered pre-term. For best treatment options, head for help early rather than later. Sometimes it will be decided that you and the baby are better off delivering right away and other times you may be watched and given some meds to slow or hold off labor.

2. Intense pain in early pregnancy, such as the first 3 months, may signal an ectopic or tubal pregnancy where the embryo implants somewhere outside the uterus such as the fallopian tube. Other symptoms would include slight bleeding about a week after your missed period, pain typically on just one side of the abdomen, dizziness, fainting, nausea or vomiting and more bleeding. This requires emergency treatment and is not to be delayed. While the pregnancy will be lost, the tube may be saved and mother's life will be guarded.

3. Sex may trigger cramping, perhaps from the contractions of orgasm or just the movement disturbing the uterus. It's nothing to be concerned with however.

4. Threatened miscarriage can cause bleeding and cramping, usually ones that intensify and bleeding becomes heavier. You can see your doctor and if it's not too early, an ultrasound may be done to check for a healthy placenta and embryo or heartbeat. Sometimes you must go through some agonizing wait because it's still so early in the pregnancy. If you are worried, call your doctor. There is no reason to fret and worry when really it is just some gas from your lunch.

5. Labor. Ahh, yes the real thing. One day those cramps will undeniably be the start of the big moment; your baby's birthday. How to tell? They will get progressively stronger, not stop no matter whether you are up and about or lying still, and will become regular and patterned. You will feel other things such as back pain, perhaps diarrhea, and your vaginal discharge will get heavy and may have bloody show in it. You may start leaking from the amniotic sac. This may be a slow leak or more of a steady streaming leak.


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