Abdominal Pain During Pregnancy

If you are pregnant and experiencing severe cramping and pain in your abdominal area, it may or may not be a reason for panic. In many cases the cause of the pain may be nothing more serious than gas, heartburn, constipation, or the normal growth of your baby. If the pain is severe, however, you should call your doctor immediately.

Causes of Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain can happen at any time during your pregnancy. Abdominal pain can be caused by any of a number of things, some of which are more serious than others:

  • Implantation: Implantation occurs very early in pregnancy, when the embryo is attaching itself to the uterine lining. This adhesion is necessary, and it is what enables the fetus to take nutrients and oxygen from the mother, but it occasionally causes a side effect known as implantation cramping. While this cramping may be unpleasant, it is nothing more than an early sign of pregnancy. Occasionally the cramping is associated with some vaginal spotting, but this is light and goes away quickly.
  • Stretching of Ligaments: When your round ligament stretches, it can cause major pains in your abdomen. The round ligament is one of a number of ligaments that support your uterus, and when you move suddenly, this ligament tightens, which causes sudden, sharp abdominal pain. Round ligament pain is a normal part of pregnancy. It most commonly occurs after 18 weeks, when the weight of your expanding uterus begins to pull on those ligaments.
  • False Labor: During the last weeks of pregnancy, many women begin to have contractions and think they are in labor. Although false labor does not usually cause severe pain, some women have reported having abdominal pains with a false labor. False labor pains are also known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, and they are quite common.
  • True Labor: If you are experiencing cramping and abdominal pain near the end of your pregnancy, it may be a sign that labor is about to begin. The difference between “false” labor and true labor is cervical change. When labor starts, it can cause strong cramps that feel much like menstrual cramps. If you are experiencing this kind of abdominal pain, call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.
  • Cramping: Cramping can occur throughout your pregnancy, and is usually mild and self limiting. In the beginning, your uterus is growing and stretching, so cramps are quite common. Later in pregnancy, however, they can be a sign of labor (or they may merely be associated with Braxton-Hicks contractions). After you deliver, you will also experience cramping. This cramping occurs because your uterus is clamping down to stop the bleeding. If you decide to breastfeed, this too can cause uterine cramping.

Ordinary Non-Pregnancy-Related Abdominal Pain

Pregnancy can be frightening, especially if it is your first time, and it is easy to interpret everything your body does as related in some way to the baby growing inside you—and easy to become needlessly worried. It is important to remember, however, that not every ache, pain, or moment of discomfort you experience is related to your pregnancy. Abdominal pain can also be caused by normal things such as gas, the growth of your baby, heartburn, and constipation.

Treating Abdominal Pain

As with most pains during your pregnancy, the cause of abdominal pain should be determined by your doctor. Remember, pregnant women can also suffer appendicitis or gallbladder attacks! If the pain is due to something normal such as gas, bloating, constipation, or the growth of your baby, there may not be too much your doctor can do for you. To lessen abdominal pain that is due to minor problems, try:

  • Avoiding quick movements, like turning your waist sharply
  • Bending toward the pain
  • Drinking more fluids
  • Walking around to relieve gas. This also usually helps relieve bloating

If your abdominal pains are being caused by something more serious, such as a miscarriage, you will need prompt medical attention. If they are being caused by labor, on the other hand, the reason for your pain will be apparent soon enough!

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Abdominal Pain During Pregnancy

  • Is this pain a sign of a serious pregnancy complication?
  • If my abdominal pain is being caused by heartburn, can I take antacids without harming the baby?
  • Am I about to go into labor, or am I just experiencing Braxton-Hicks contractions?
  • Is there anything that can be done to ease the discomfort caused by my round ligament pain?

Medical References:

    http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/roundligament.htm The National Institute of Health http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000580.htm Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health http://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/you-are-pregnant/body-changes-discomforts.html The March of Dimes http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/abdominal-pain-or-cramping.aspx# Marx, J. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice, 7th edition, Mosby Elsevier, 2009.
[Page updated April 2014]