Nothing will send you to Dr. Google faster than cramps during pregnancy, especially during early pregnancy. Fortunately, cramping during pregnancy is usually perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.
In this article, we’ll discuss the answers to the following questions, and much more:
Is Cramping Normal During Pregnancy?
Cramps during pregnancy are perfectly normal. In fact, some mamas with perfectly healthy pregnancies experience cramping in all three trimesters.
Before we go any further, though, if you’re experiencing cramps coupled with dizziness, unusual discharge, back pain, or abdominal pain, contact your healthcare provider. These could be a sign of a more serious concern, and they’ll be able to tell you what steps you should take next.
What Do Cramps During Pregnancy Feel Like?
The uterus is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, it’s prone to cramping and pain.
Similar to how we can get Charlie horses or sore muscles, we can experience cramps and pain in the uterus and the surrounding pelvic floor muscles and ligaments that support the womb.
Pregnancy cramps often feel a lot like period cramps—an aching, tightening feeling, felt in the lower abdomen, upper thighs, or lower back, that can be constant or come and go.
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What Causes Cramps During Pregnancy?
There are many reasons women experience cramps during pregnancy throughout all three trimesters:
Some, but definitely not all, pregnant women experience implantation cramping—a dull pain that can happen one to two weeks after a fertilized egg burrows its way into the uterine lining. Because this happens so early in a pregnancy, most women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet. For this reason, implantation cramps are easily mistaken for ovulation cramping, PMS cramps, or some other minor passing pain.
Progesterone is a sex hormone that plays an important role in fertility and maintaining pregnancy. Throughout pregnancy, the placenta is the main producer of this hormone. When progesterone levels are low, cramping (and possibly bleeding) may cause the lining of the uterus to thin and weaken.
You may suspect low progesterone levels if you’re spotting or have recurring miscarriages. Up your vitamin B and C intake (try camu camu powder), plus eat more foods rich in zinc. Your provider may also recommend progesterone supplements.
Gas, bloating, bowel changes
GI discomforts of all kind often cause cramps during pregnancy. The hormonal combo of low motilin and high progesterone levels slow down how quickly food moves through the stomach and intestines, which can lead to both gas, bloating, and constipation.Unfortunately, you can expect these kinds of cramps throughout your pregnancy.
Check out this post for some tips and tricks to relieve GI discomfort.
Because the uterus is is a muscle, it’s susceptible to muscle cramps caused by mineral deficiencies. Deficiencies of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, sodium and even calcium, which play a role in muscle contraction and relaxation, can result in cramps during pregnancy.
Besides having a well-rounded, healthy diet rich in the freshest ingredients available, be sure to take a high-quality prenatal vitamin.
Urinary tract infections
Up to 8 percent of pregnant women will develop a UTI at some point during pregnancy. This type of infection often causes some cramping.
UTIs are more common during pregnancy due to:
- Dilated ureters (the tubes that allow urine to pass from the kidneys to the bladder)
- Reduced bladder strength
- Higher amounts of urine output
- Decreased immunity to bacterial overgrowth in the lower urinary tract
- And excess sugar in the urine
Check out this post for natural ways to treat a UTI.
Uterine stimulating foods and herbs
Some foods and herbs, like unripe papaya, motherwort, red raspberry leaf tea, blue cohosh, and black cohosh can stimulate uterine contractions, causing cramps during pregnancy.
If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, it’s always a good idea to discuss any herbal use with a healthcare provider or a clinical herbalist who is knowledgeable about herbal use during pregnancy.
Certain essential oils
Many midwives and those familiar with the use of herbs in pregnancy and labor turn towards essential oils for their powerful effects on body systems, but sometimes these powerful effects can lead to cramping.
Here is a list of essential oils that may contribute to cramps during pregnancy:
- Clary Sage
Be sure to consult with someone who is well-versed in the use of essential oils before deciding to use essential oils during pregnancy.
Unfortunately, cramps during pregnancy can signal pregnancy loss. But please know that cramping without any other symptoms does not necessarily mean miscarriage. Statistics are on your side: In one study, 85 percent of participants experienced cramps during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, but only 28 percent miscarried.
If you are concerned or suspect that you may be having a miscarriage, reach out to your healthcare provider for further evaluation. Check out this post to verse yourself in the signs and symptoms of miscarriage.
Poor alignment of pelvis or uterus
An imbalance or poor alignment of the pelvis or the uterus can cause a domino effect of other complications, such as fetal malposition (breech or posterior presentation, for example) and pelvic or lower back pain.
What causes misalignment? When some muscles are loose and some muscle are tight, it results in an uneven pull on the ligaments and muscles surrounding the pelvis/uterus. The softening effects of pregnancy hormones on the muscles and ligaments can also throw off this fine balance.
Find a chiropractor trained in the Webster technique through this database or try an Arvigo massage.
The rapid growth of a pregnant woman’s body causes her skin, ligaments, and muscles to stretch, causing aching, itching, spasms, cramps, or sharp, shooting pains. It’s not rocket science to understand why this stretching can cause discomfort in some women.
Get in touch with your healthcare provider if these sensations are prolonged or concerning.
Round ligament pain
A network of ligaments, including the round ligament, supports your uterus. As pregnancy progresses, the round ligament stretches to accommodate the growing baby and womb. Round ligament pain is described as a sharp, shooting pain that can be felt on either side of the lower abdomen. This pain is usually brought on by sudden movement or exercise such as rolling over in bed, sneezing, or even having an orgasm.
Check out this post for ways to relieve round ligament pain.
Lightning crotch is a catch-all phrase for a sudden, sharp, stabbing pain that occurs in the pelvis, rectum, or vulva. Causes can include baby’s movement, round ligament pain, and mineral deficiencies.
Check out this post for natural ways to relieve pain associated with lightning crotch.
By about 20 weeks, it’s common for pregnant women to experience Braxton Hicks contractions. These types of contractions are sometimes called “false labor pains,” and are the body’s way of preparing for labor.
Braxton hicks are felt higher in the uterus and start out as mild tightening in the front of the uterus. Unlike real labor contractions, Braxton hicks are irregular, infrequent, and do not dilate the cervix. Read more about Braxton hicks, including how to get relief, in this post.
When the baby is in the final stages of growth, a few things start to happen:
- Baby gets stronger and that means stronger kicking and movements. For some women this can be very uncomfortable. This movement can also trigger the uterus to contract, causing cramps during pregnancy.
- Baby runs out of room, so these kicks and movements feel more pronounced. Again, this can be uncomfortable and cause some women to cramp.
Learn more about your baby’s positioning here.
Preterm labor is defined as “regular contractions of the uterus resulting in changes in the cervix that start before 37 weeks of pregnancy.” Cramping is one of the first signs of preterm labor.
Call your healthcare provider right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Change in type of vaginal discharge (watery, mucus, or bloody)
- Increase in amount of discharge
- Pelvic or lower abdominal pressure
- Constant low, dull backache
- Mild abdominal cramps, with or without diarrhea
- Regular or frequent contractions or uterine tightening, often painless
- Ruptured membranes (your water breaks with a gush or a trickle of fluid)
How to Relieve Cramps During Pregnancy
Even the slightest bit of dehydration can lead to muscle cramps during pregnancy. The Office on Women’s Health recommends pregnant women drink at least 10 cups (2.4 liters) of fluids daily.
Use gentle heat
A warm bath is a trusted and time-tested go-to for cramps during pregnancy. Make a warm bath even more therapeutic by adding epsom salt. The magnesium in epsom salt promotes relaxation of muscles. Keep the water lukewarm—pregnant women should not soak in water over 100 degrees—and limit your bath to 10 minutes.
You can also apply a warm compress or water bottle to sore areas for 10-15 minutes.
Stretch and strengthen
The following activities can all help your body move through discomfort associated with cramping, spasming, and aching during pregnancy.
- Prenatal yoga classes: Many yoga studios offer special classes for pregnant women. If you can’t find one in your area, there a plenty of good prenatal yoga videos to stream on YouTube.
- Walking: Aim for just 15-30 minutes per day. Go slow—the important thing is you’re moving.
- Pregnancy pilates: This exercise is safe during all trimesters of pregnancy and can help you build strength, balance, and stamina—all bonuses during pregnancy and labor!
- Swimming: Swimming in natural bodies of water is easy on joints, but provides great full-body exercise.
Keep in mind that exercising also helps with blood pressure, blood sugar, and can even boost baby’s IQ.
Each mineral-rich foods
Mineral deficiencies, even subclinical levels can lead to cramps. By eating plenty of mineral-rich foods and herbs, along with proper prenatal supplementation, you can prevent and relieve cramps during pregnancy.
Some mineral-rich foods to enjoy include:
- Dark leafy greens
- Nuts, seeds, chocolate, and avocado
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Nettles and nettle infusions
- Fish and shellfish
- Whole grains
Eat iron-rich foods
Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin, the protein responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Without enough oxygen, muscles cramp. Getting enough iron from food and supplements will ensure your body has the iron it needs to deliver oxygen to all your cells including the ones that make up your uterus. Couple iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods to increase absorption. Keep in mind: Plant-based sources of iron can be difficult for the body to absorb—you can try a supplement (with your provider’s approval) like Blood Builder to help.
Iron-rich foods include:
- Grass-fed red meat
- Chicken liver
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Raw spinach
- Nuts and seeds, like cashews, almonds, peanuts, and sunflower seeds
- Dried fruit, like raisins or prunes
Vitamin C-rich foods include:
- Bell peppers
Wear a belly band
Wearing a belly band specifically designed to give your belly a little bit of extra support goes a long way towards relieving cramps during pregnancy. Just don’t wear one for more than 3 hours a day—this can actually weaken your muscles.
Easier said than done, but so very, very important. High levels of stress can result in a lowered immune system, high blood pressure and/or premature birth. (source) Cramping during pregnancy is often associated with those complications, so please do yourself a favor and make time for self care.
Here are a few tips for reducing stress during pregnancy:
- Identify the source(s) of your stress and find someone to talk to
- Recite positive affirmations
- Nourish yourself with a well-balanced diet
- Go to bed early and make your sleeping environment feel comfortable
- Cut back on unnecessary activities
- Ask others for help with household tasks and other children
- Spend time with friends
- Take a childbirth education class
Monitor your activity level
Though exercise during pregnancy is your great for your health and the health of your baby, too much isn’t a good thing. Some perfectly safe and enjoyable things, like sex, can cause cramps during pregnancy. Sex, while typically encouraged throughout pregnancy (as long as it’s something you desire and enjoy) can cause the uterus contract. Not enough to induce labor before it’s time, but enough that you might experience discomfort. Only you know what is “too much” for you, so take the time to check in with your body and know your limits.
According to ACOG, you should stop exercising and contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following:
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Shortness of breath before exercising
- Chest pain
- Muscle weakness
- Calf pain or swelling
- Regular, painful contractions of the uterus
- Fluid leaking from the vagina
When Is Cramping During Pregnancy a Concern?
If cramping during pregnancy is persistent or increasing with pain, or is accompanied by the following symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for further evaluation:
I know you only want the best for your baby, but try not to jump to the worst-case scenario. In the vast majority of cases, cramping during pregnancy is normal. That said, you should always check in with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about cramps during pregnancy.