Early pregnancy is a time of major change for a woman’s body. Particularly if the pregnancy is her first, her body organs shift considerably to make room for a uterus that begins to expand surprisingly soon after conception. Some of these changes, many of which will be among the first signs of pregnancy, can be quite uncomfortable, and even painful. Generally, however, even painful signs of early pregnancy are normal and indicate that the body is simply preparing for the months ahead.
There are several possible painful signs of early pregnancy. In their book, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” authors Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel describe one of the first of these signs as very tender, swollen breasts. Hormones are responsible for breast pain, as well as for lower back pain, which is another common early sign of pregnancy. Finally, uterine cramps, which may be very uncomfortable, often mark the early weeks of pregnancy as the uterine lining grows thick, stretching the organ.
The function of these early signs, uncomfortable though they are, is to prepare a woman’s body to carry a baby to term. Breasts become painful as they swell with blood, which allows milk ducts to develop. Hormones that will eventually help the baby pass through the birth canal by widening the pelvic girdle also loosen the back, leading to pain. Finally, explain Murkoff and Mazel, while the uterus must stretch to accommodate its new occupant, the pain is the result of pulling of the ligaments that support it.
Dr. Raymond Poliakin, in his book “What You Didn’t Think To Ask Your Obstetrician,” notes that many of these early signs of pregnancy can present themselves quite soon after conception. While most women won’t know they’re pregnant for sure until two weeks after fertilization, at which point they’ll miss a period, women may start feeling breast, back and uterus pain within just a few days of conception. Symptoms generally become more severe around the time of the missed period, and in the weeks afterward.
Unfortunately, early painful signs of pregnancy are quite similar to early signs of an oncoming period, explains Dr. Miriam Stoppard in “Conception, Pregnancy and Birth.” Many women are accustomed to tender breasts and cramping, which involves both the uterus and lower back, associated with their menstrual flow. As such, very early pregnancy may be difficult to discern from a normal monthly cycle. The difference, of course, is that in the case of pregnancy, painful symptoms don’t culminate in a period, and instead become more severe.
While some painful early pregnancy signs are completely normal, others may signal that something is quite wrong. An ectopic pregnancy, notes Dr. Stoppard, occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. This does not allow for a viable pregnancy, and can actually threaten the life of the mother if it goes undiagnosed. Severe abdominal cramping that worsens over time and localizes to one side of the body is a sign of a possible ectopic pregnancy, and is worth a visit to the doctor.
- “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”; Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel; 2008
- “What You Didn’t Think to Ask Your Obstetrician”; Raymond Poliakin, M.D.; 2007
- “Conception, Pregnancy and Birth”; Miriam Stoppard, M.D.; 2008