You know you get cramps during your period. But you’ve been trying to conceive, and these cramps feel different. Can you possibly be pregnant and cramping? Or is it just your wishful thinking? And if you are cramping in early pregnancy—is it normal?
You may have all these questions running through your head if you’re pregnant and cramping. But here’s the good news. It turns out cramping can be an early sign of pregnancy, and it’s completely normal.1
How are pregnancy cramps different from period cramps?
If you’re biologically a woman, you’re probably no stranger to period cramps. You know, that awful feeling that has you bent over in agony at least three days out of the month? Yeah, I know it too well. It’s not a fun time of the month.
Here’s the quick and dirty on period cramps. Period cramps are brought on by prostaglandins that cause your uterus to contract to shed its lining.2 The severity of your cramps can depend on the level of prostaglandins (the higher the level, the more severe the pain). Or underlying conditions like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and cervical stenosis.
Pregnancy cramps, on the other hand, have a different cause. The usual culprit of pregnancy cramps is implantation.1 When the fertilized egg implants into the uterine wall, your body may react with slight bleeding (spotting) and cramps. It’s a perfectly normal bodily reaction to pregnancy. This happens about 6 to 12 days post-ovulation, which coincides with when your period would have started. This makes it more difficult to determine the cause of cramping. But, one way you can usually tell your pregnancy cramping apart from period cramping is by the severity of your cramps. Pregnancy cramping is usually not as severe. It may feel like pricking or pulling inside your lower abdomen.
Another less-than-sexy reason for pregnancy cramps could be gas or constipation.3 Unfortunately, both of those will become your constant companion during pregnancy. Sorry, ladies. It results from your growing uterus, which misplaces your organs and intestines.
Don’t be surprised if you experience cramping at any point in your first trimester. According to Dr. Virginia Beckett, consultant obstetrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, “The body produces higher rates of progesterone during pregnancy, which can affect muscles, ligaments, and joints, making them more flexible. This may be felt as the womb expands to accommodate the growing fetus.”3
When to worry about early pregnancy cramps?
While most pregnancy cramps are mild and are not a cause for concern, there are times when pregnancy cramps necessitate a need to see a doctor. The three top concerns for early pregnancy cramping include ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, and urinary tract infection (UTI).
An ectopic pregnancy may be difficult to detect initially because you may only have light symptoms like spotting and cramping.4 But if you’re also experiencing shoulder pain, extreme lightheadedness, and your abdominal cramping becomes more severe — it’s time to see a doctor. Ectopic pregnancies are dangerous and cannot continue to develop.
Miscarriage cramps are typically different because they are more severe and are accompanied by bleeding.5 The more severe the pain during a miscarriage, the more urgent you need to see a doctor. See a doctor immediately if you’re experiencing bleeding or severe abdomen and back pain.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in pregnancy and typically occur between 6 and 24 weeks.6 Pregnant women are more prone to having UTIs because of the expanding uterus, which can block urine drainage. A UTI during pregnancy should not be left untreated as it can potentially lead to a kidney infection, which can, in turn, lead to an early birth and a low birth weight baby. You can tell a UTI by cramping in the lower abdomen, increased need to urinate, and stinging and burning while urinating. So if you feel any of those symptoms, talk to your doctor, so they can prescribe medication and treat your UTI.
What can you do to ease pregnancy cramps?
Usually, early pregnancy cramps are fairly mild and can be alleviated by rest. You can also use a warm compress or heating pad on your lower abdomen to comfort yourself. If none of those measures ease the pain, you can take acetaminophen. Do not take ibuprofen if you suspect that you are pregnant. Studies have found a link between ibuprofen use in early pregnancy and a higher risk of miscarriage.7
Keep in mind that the information provided above is just for general knowledge. If you have any questions or concerns about your pregnancy, you should discuss them with your doctor. Only your doctor knows your personal health history and risk factors.