What to Do About Early Pregnancy Cramps
September 24, 2021
It’s easy to assume your period is on its way when you have some cramping around that time of the month. But, as it turns out, that familiar discomfort could actually be an early sign of pregnancy. Even after you realize you’ve missed your period and see that exciting positive pregnancy test result, those early pregnancy cramps can continue for a while. Don’t panic—it’s a very normal part of those hormone-filled first few weeks. Still, it’s only natural to wonder why you might experience cramping in early pregnancy, what you can do to ease the discomfort and if there are any red flags to look out for. Want to get the lowdown on those first trimester cramps, twinges, aches and pains? Here’s everything you need to know.
In this article:
What do early pregnancy cramps feel like?
Is cramping in early pregnancy normal?
Causes of early pregnancy cramps
How long does cramping last in early pregnancy?
How to treat early pregnancy cramps
When to call the doctor about early pregnancy cramps
Not everyone feels or notices early pregnancy cramps, says Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida: “It depends on the person and how sensitive they are.” The exact feeling of the cramps can vary, but in general, they’re “just like regular period cramps—a mild, dull, persistent nagging,” says Theresa Rose, DO, an ob-gyn with Northwestern Medicine.
If you’re still questioning what early pregnancy cramps feel like, think of the uterus as “a big muscle,” says Jonathan Schaffir, MD, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Basically, early pregnancy cramps may feel similar to muscle cramps you’d feel elsewhere in your body.
Yes, experiencing period-like cramps during early pregnancy is a common complaint among newly expectant moms. It’s understandable to get nervous when you feel anything different in your body during this physically and emotionally tumultuous time, but Schaffir confirms that these early pregnancy cramps are “very common.” And if you don’t experience any cramping during early pregnancy? That’s fine too: “Consider yourself lucky,” Greves says.
There are actually a few different reasons why you might experience early pregnancy cramps in those first few weeks and months.
- Your fertilized egg is implanting in your uterus. Before you have a missed period, an egg that’s been fertilized needs to implant in the lining of your uterus where it will grow—and that can come with a little noticeable discomfort. Implantation cramping is completely normal, and “may feel like a little twinge, aching or pulling sensation,” Greves says. It may also be accompanied by some light spotting called implantation bleeding. It’s worth noting that implantation happens a few days after you’d typically expect to menstruate; if you don’t have a predictable cycle, it can be extra confusing to determine if you’re experiencing period cramps vs. early pregnancy cramps (so you might want to take a pregnancy test.
- Your uterus is growing. Early pregnancy cramps are often caused by the rapid expansion of your uterus along with your growing baby, Rose says. “Your uterus is undergoing a lot of change in the first trimester,” she explains. “It’s going from being just in the pelvis to becoming an abdominal organ and moving out of the pelvis.” Basically, some mild cramping could be the result of your muscle fibers stretching. Think of this as “growing pains,” Schaffir says.
- You could have gas. Early in pregnancy, your gut motility (aka the speed that things move through your intestinal tract) slows down, due, in part, to sudden hormonal changes. That can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gassiness and constipation. If this is the case, you’re not experiencing early pregnancy cramps per se, but rather a byproduct of all the physical changes happening in your body. It’s “a different kind of cramp, but still normal,” Schaffir notes.
- You just had sex. The release of oxytocin after an orgasm can cause your uterus to contract and lead to some cramping during early pregnancy; but don’t worry, any discomfort should fade quickly.
- You have a urinary tract infection. You’re more at risk of getting a UTI around or after the sixth week of pregnancy, according to the American Pregnancy Association. If cramping is accompanied by frequent urination, a burning sensation when you go to the bathroom or fever, check in with your doctor.
While early pregnancy cramps are generally considered harmless, they can be a sign that something is wrong—especially when they’re accompanied by heavy bleeding. Rest assured, though, that a little pelvic ache by itself isn’t really cause for concern, says Rose. Still, if you experience strong cramps, bleeding or unusual discharge, or have any other troubling symptoms, reach out to your doctor.
Early pregnancy cramps can be an inconvenience, but they typically don’t stick around for long stretches. Most women who experience them will be mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes a day. However, it’s possible that they may nag you on and off for a few hours, Rose says. They may also come and go throughout your first trimester for various reasons, but they’re likely to be most pronounced in the first month after that positive pregnancy test, says Schaffir.
If you have early pregnancy cramps here and there and they’re generally not causing you too much pain, you don’t need to do anything to treat them. But if you’re uncomfortable, doctors say there are a few things you can try:
- Use a warm compress. Placing a warm—not hot—compress on your abdomen can help relieve discomfort, Greves recommends.
- Take a lukewarm bath. Like a heating pad, soaking in a warm bath can also help ease your muscle aches—just make sure it’s not too hot. “Women should be careful not to use anything that could raise their core body temperature in early pregnancy, like a hot tub,” Schaffir advises.
- Take acetaminophen. Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is considered safe to use in pregnancy. Schaffir warns that other pain medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, should generally be avoided, though. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your doctor.
Early pregnancy cramps are normal, but there are some instances when it’s a good idea to check in with your ob-gyn or midwife: If you feel “persistent sharp pain, pain located on one side of the pelvis in early pregnancy, or pain with bleeding,” Schaffir advises seeking help. It could be a possible sign of an early miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, which happens when the fertilized egg attaches outside the uterus.
When you’re newly pregnant, any unpleasant or uncomfortable symptom can be disconcerting. While occasional cramping in early pregnancy is par for the course, it never hurts to check in with your doctor or midwife to get some reassurance and peace of mind.
About the experts:
Christine Greves, MD, is an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida. She received her medical degree at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.
Theresa Rose, DO, is an ob-gyn with Northwestern Medicine. She earned her medical degree at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania.
Jonathan Schaffir, MD, is an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the author of What to Believe When You’re Expecting: A New Look at Old Wives’ Tales in Pregnancy. He earned his medical degree at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.