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Pregnancy Cramps: What they Mean, Why You Get Them

Katlyn Joy | 6, May 2013


Cramps seem to always be a part of a woman's life, and even though you are no longer having your period, cramps may be around still.

Cramping In Early Pregnancy

You may experience cramping in very early pregnancy when the fertilized egg implants itself into the uterus. Implantation typically occurs 6 to 12 days after fertilization. This can be a bit confusing if you've yet to confirm a suspected pregnancy as you may think the cramping is foreshadowing of a period yet to arrive. You may even have a bit of bleeding with implantation but it's not a true period. However, if your period is late and you've got a bit of cramping, don't assume it's an ominous sign of an impending miscarriage.

Besides implantation, cramping can also occur in early pregnancy just because your uterus is expanding and growing to accommodate baby and some women seem more sensitive to this expansion than others. For some, it's not noticeable while for others it may be quite uncomfortable. Rest assured, it won't be a constant thing, however.

Cramping in Mid Pregnancy

During the second trimester, it's normal for a woman to feel the stretching of the ligaments and muscles which support the uterus. It's most often felt when she gets up from sitting down, or lying in bed, and can be especially sharp if the woman turns or bends at the waist.

These aches and pains can be dull or sharp depending on the action that set it off and the individual woman. To help with the pain, take your time when changing position. If you feel any discomfort past the moment you switch positions, put your feet up and rest for awhile. Or you can try lying on your side with your abdomen supported with a pillow.

A warm water bottle can help or a heating pad set on low. Often these pains can start up when we go to bed at night. This may be due to fatigue or it may be as simple as you aren't distracted from feeling them. Also, many infants are more active in the womb during the night because the motion of the uterus has settled down and they aren't being lulled to sleep by the motion and noises of the day.

Cramping in Later Pregnancy

Most the time in later pregnancy, we are hyper-aware of every twinge and ache because we want to know if the big day is on the horizon.

Braxton Hicks contractions will cause cramping sensations and are also known by the ever-hated term, false labor. It's hated because many a pregnant woman, especially first-timers, have grabbed the bag and zoomed off to the ER only to be shuffled back home because it's "not time yet."

A good way to tell if these are pains that signal the start of labor is to change whatever you are doing and see if they go away. If you are walking around when they begin, sit down. If you are resting, go run an errand. Changing position and activity generally will put a stop to Braxton Hicks.

True labor will become regular and more intense with time. How intense? You won't wonder if it's labor or Braxton Hicks. You'll know! Braxton Hicks contractions are usually painless but some women seem more bothered by them than others. Sometimes just knowing what they are, and reducing the anxiety will ease the pain as well. These practice contractions are getting your body ready for the real thing, so be patient with them and try to relax.

Occasionally, a woman may have cramping after sex or orgasm. It's perfectly OK and not a sign that you hurt the baby, so don't worry. Remember, orgasm is a contraction of a kind. And even sex without orgasm can start some cramping going. It will stop eventually.

Cramping that Can Be Serious

While the overwhelming majority of the time cramps are harmless and nothing to be concerned about, there are some cases where you need to call the doctor or get to the hospital.

Call the Doctor If...

- You are in early labor and you are cramping and bleeding. You may get a blood test to check your hormone levels to see if a pregnancy if progressing. If it's not too early, you may be able to get a sonogram to confirm a healthy pregnancy.

- You have cramping and suspect a urinary infection due to problems with urination. UTI's are a common malady of pregnancy.

- You have other symptoms such as fever, chills, bleeding, lightheadedness or fainting. These may indicate a more serious problem that you need a physical exam to rule out.

Seek Immediate Medical Attention If...

- You are in the early weeks of pregnancy and have symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy. These include cramping and bleeding, pain on one side of the abdomen, shoulder pain, nausea and vomiting. An ectopic pregnancy must be treated immediately as it can be threatening to mother's life. No ectopic pregnancy can be saved, but future fertility may be protected if early treatment is received and the fallopian tube can be preserved.

- You suspect preterm labor. The signs of preterm labor include cramping that tightens like a fist and is occurring in regular intervals, loss of fluid via the vagina, low, dull backaches, pelvic pressure, and possibly diarrhea.

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