Women commonly experience abdominal cramps in late pregnancy. While this is understandably concerning, there are many possible causes. Most causes are harmless, such as digestive system problems or illnesses such as the "stomach flu." However, abdominal cramps in late pregnancy sometimes signal a more serious problem, like a pregnancy complication or infection that requires medical treatment to ensure your health and the health of your baby.
Constipation affects 10 percent to 40 percent of pregnant women, according to an article published in "Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery" in June 2010. It is thought to be more common in late pregnancy because the size of the womb may interfere with normal bowel function. Pregnancy-related hormones likely also play a role. The pain of constipation is often cramping in nature. It can be accompanied by nausea and increased intestinal gas.
Other Digestive System Causes
Abdominal cramps can occur in pregnancy for the same reasons they occur in other people. These include so-called stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, a common illness caused by viruses. Typical symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Eating too much can make you feel uncomfortably full and can cause stomach cramps as well. Gallstones can also occur in pregnancy, and a flare-up can lead to cramping abdominal pain, along with symptoms such as nausea and loss of appetite.
Braxton-Hicks contractions are painless tightenings of the muscular tissue of the womb, or uterus. They are harmless and occur because the uterus is preparing for labor. They come and go irregularly, and are not true labor. They usually last for about 30 seconds but can persist for up to 2 minutes. You may experience them more often as you get closer to your due date.
Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, occur in approximately 2 percent to 7 percent of pregnant women, according to "The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics." Symptoms can include pain when passing urine; the urge to empty your bladder often while passing only a small amount; blood in your urine; cloudy or offensive-smelling urine and abdominal cramps. UTIs are particularly concerning for pregnant women because the infection can spread from the bladder to the kidneys, a condition called pyelonephritis. This infection can cause early labor.
Labor that starts before 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature. Premature delivery can put your baby at risk because the lungs may not be fully developed. Signs of labor include your water breaking and/or painful, regular contractions that get closer together and stronger over time. True labor tends to cause lower back pain, while Braxton-Hicks contractions are more commonly felt in the abdomen and groin.
The placenta, which provides nutrition and oxygen to your baby, normally stays attached to your uterus until after your baby is delivered. In approximately 1 out of every 100 to 200 pregnancies, the placenta detaches too early -- a condition called a placental abruption. The symptoms of placental abruption vary. You may experience sudden, sharp, severe pain that may be cramping in nature. It can then become dull, and your uterus may feel very hard. The pain may be felt in the front of your abdomen or toward your back. You may also experience vaginal bleeding. Urgent medical attention is needed if a placental abruption occurs.
When to See a Doctor
Talk with your doctor right away if you:
-- Develop sudden abdominal cramps or have pain that is severe, sharp or persistent;
-- Have symptoms of premature labor such as painful, regular contractions or your water breaks;
-- Develop other symptoms with the pain, such as nausea, vomiting, painful urination, foul-smelling urine, vaginal discharge or bleeding, fever or dizziness;
-- Cannot feel your baby moving; or
-- Are concerned about your abdominal pain or generally feel unwell.