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Home > Learn > Pregnancy > >What to Know About Cramping During Pregnancy

What to Know About Cramping During Pregnancy

Jun 14, 23 7 min

By Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, OBGYN

Are you experiencing stomach or leg cramps during pregnancy? In this article, we’ll go over what might be causing your cramps, what’s considered normal, and when you should see a doctor.

Is cramping normal during pregnancy?

Cramping in the legs or abdomen can be normal during pregnancy, but abdominal cramps can also be a sign of miscarriage or serious complications. [1] The best way to determine if the cramping or pain you’re experiencing is a normal side effect of pregnancy is to visit your healthcare provider. In many cases, miscarriage or other serious pregnancy complications will be accompanied by other symptoms, such as vaginal discharge and bleeding, vision changes, dizziness, swelling, and others. [2-4] 

Why do pregnancy cramps happen?

Common pregnancy symptoms include fatigue, sore breasts, and morning sickness, but what about cramping? While it can be unsettling, cramping during pregnancy is somewhat common and isn’t always cause for concern. Cramping is often seen in the legs, but may also occur in the abdomen and feel similar to period cramps. [5-6] 

While we aren’t sure of the exact cause of leg cramps during pregnancy, we know they’re fairly common, and some research points to imbalanced electrolytes, weight gain, nerve compression, and insufficient blood flow. [6-7] Leg cramps may appear at any time but are common while sleeping or laying down. Let’s take a look at some potential causes of stomach cramps. 

Gas, bloating, and morning sickness

Experiencing gastrointestinal pain or discomfort is another common symptom of pregnancy. You may notice an increase in bloating, gas, constipation, and morning sickness. [1] The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can lead to changes in multiple organ systems. As a result, gastrointestinal changes may occur. Morning sickness is also a common symptom, occurring in up to 80% of pregnant people. [1] All of these changes and conditions can lead to some stomach pain or discomfort. Learn how to manage gas during pregnancy → 

The growing uterus

Stomach cramps during pregnancy can sometimes occur as a result of your body changing and the uterus expanding to accommodate your baby. Two large round ligaments run from the uterus through the groin. [1] Round ligament pain is especially common in the later half of pregnancy and occurs as a result of the uterus and the related ligaments stretching. This can cause sharp or dull pain in the abdomen, hips, or groin. [1] 

Implantation pain

In some cases, you may feel menstrual-like cramping when implantation occurs. This is very early on in pregnancy and would likely be the first noticeable symptom. Some people also experience implantation bleeding or spotting, which is sometimes mistaken as the start of menstruation. [5]

Labor or false labor pains

Contractions can feel like very strong cramps and may be a sign of labor or Braxton-Hicks contractions, AKA false labor. It’s actually believed that Braxton Hicks contractions start as early as six weeks gestation, but aren’t felt until the second or third trimester. [8] Braxton Hicks are the body’s way of preparing for labor and are a normal part of pregnancy. Braxton Hicks should not be painful and often feel like mild menstrual cramps or a tightening in the abdomen. [8]

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Miscarriage, preeclampsia, and ectopic pregnancy

There are some more serious complications during pregnancy that may also cause cramping. Usually, this cramping will be more severe, one-sided, and will occur with other symptoms such as vaginal discharge and bleeding, severe headaches, changes in vision, shortness of breath, excess protein in the urine, extremely sudden weight gain, dizziness, fainting, shoulder pain, or low back pain. [2-4] Read Six Things to Know About Preeclampsia

It can be scary to feel cramping or discomfort and not know if what you’re experiencing is a normal side effect of pregnancy or something to be concerned about. If you are ever nervous about a symptom you’re experiencing, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. They can rule out any serious complications and may be able to pinpoint what’s causing your discomfort. 

What do normal pregnancy cramps feel like?

Cramping typically isn’t a reason to be concerned as long as it isn’t long-lasting, severe, one-sided, or accompanied by vaginal bleeding. Pregnancy cramps may feel similar to period cramps and can be a dull pain or occasional sharp pain. If cramps are extremely painful and debilitating or are accompanied by other abnormal symptoms, there may be something more serious going on. [2-4] 

Leg cramps are also a common symptom of pregnancy and should not be accompanied by any swelling, redness, or warmth. [9] If you do notice these symptoms, you may be at risk of a blood clot and should speak to a healthcare provider as soon as possible. 

How long does cramping last?

Stomach cramps may occur during early or late pregnancy. Cramping typically shouldn’t last longer than an hour and is usually a passing occurrence. [1] Similarly, leg cramps should not last longer than a few minutes at a time. [9] If you’re experiencing prolonged or frequently recurring cramping, you may want to speak to a healthcare provider. 

When to see a healthcare provider

You should speak to your healthcare provider whenever you have any questions or concerns about your pregnancy. If you are experiencing debilitating or frequent cramping, or if your cramping is accompanied by any of the following, you should seek out a healthcare professional immediately [2-4,9]:

  • Fever or chills
  • Vaginal bleeding, spotting, or abnormal discharge
  • Repetitive contractions
  • Nausea or vomiting (outside of your typical morning sickness or in combination with frequent cramping)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Changes in vision
  • Headache
  • Swelling or redness
  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain

How to relieve cramps during pregnancy

Cramping can be uncomfortable, especially during pregnancy. You may find some relief through massaging the body, drinking plenty of fluids, balancing electrolytes, switching positions, taking a warm bath or shower, elevating your legs, and stretching. [10-11]

Some research also suggests that maintaining adequate electrolyte balance helps to support musculoskeletal health, potentially improving muscle cramps. Common electrolytes include sodium, magnesium, choline, and calcium. Data is mixed on whether or not supplementing with electrolytes can reduce the frequency of cramps once they’ve begun, but maintaining proper hydration and electrolyte balance can support your pregnancy and basic bodily functions. [10-13]

Additionally, a study found that magnesium and calcium supplementation may be useful for reducing the risk of calf cramps, preeclampsia, and miscarriage. [10]

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Get support with Natalist products

While pregnancy can be a beautiful experience, it can also come with some challenges and not-so-fun side effects. We’ve been there, which is why we’ve curated a number of different products that are evidence-based, pregnancy safe, and made with carefully selected ingredients. Whether you’re experiencing swelling, cramping, or nausea, we’ve got you covered. 

 

References:

  1. Zachariah SK, Fenn M, Jacob K, Arthungal SA, Zachariah SA. Management of acute abdomen in pregnancy: current perspectives. Int J Womens Health. 2019;11:119-134. Published 2019 Feb 8. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S151501
  2. Miscarriage. Mayo Clinic. October 16 2021. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  3. Preeclampsia. Mayo Clinic. August 15 2022. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  4. Ectopic Pregnancy. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. FAQ155. July 2022. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  5. Am I Pregnant? Cleveland Clinic. July 26 2022. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  6. Pregnancy week by week. Mayo Clinic. April 12 2023. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  7. Bordoni B, Sugumar K, Varacallo M. Muscle Cramps. [Updated 2022 Sep 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499895/
  8. Raines DA, Cooper DB. Braxton Hicks Contractions. [Updated 2022 Aug 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470546/
  9. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). Cleveland Clinic. March 28 2022. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  10. Classen HG, Helbig J. [Magnesium therapy in pregnancy. Pharmacologic and toxicologic aspects of magnesium supplementation and use in pre-eclampsia and threatened premature labor]. Fortschritte der Medizin. 1984 Sep;102(34):841-844. PMID: 6149180.
  11. Pregnancy Discomforts: Back Pain, Round Ligament Pain, Nausea. Cleveland Clinic. May 15 2020. URL. Accessed May 2023. 
  12. Mosenkis A, Townsend RR. Muscle cramps and diuretic therapy. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2005;7(2):134-135. doi:10.1111/j.1524-6175.2005.04094.x
  13. Shrimanker I, Bhattarai S. Electrolytes. [Updated 2022 Jul 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541123/

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