Of all pregnancy symptoms, cramping is one of the biggies that give most moms-to-be pause -- especially in the first trimester, when the risk of miscarriage is at its highest. A miscarriage can happen any time up to 20 weeks, but the vast majority occur before 13 weeks. Between weeks 13 and 19, the chances drop to 1 to 5 percent.
Though the discomfort could be a sign of a larger issue, not every ache and pain means your baby is in distress. In fact, some discomfort and cramping is to be expected during pregnancy, as your body adjusts to and nurtures a growing baby. Each trimester provides plenty of opportunities to feel the pain, though -- from implantation to round ligament pain to contractions that signal it's go time.
So when does cramping mean miscarriage? It depends on how much pain you're feeling, what other symptoms you have, and how far along you are in your pregnancy, says Siobhan Dolan, M.D., a medical advisor to the March of Dimes and an attending physician in the Division of Reproductive Genetics at Montefiore Medical Center, the University Hospital for Einstein, in New York City. "Miscarriage is more common earlier in pregnancy, and this is often due to genetic changes in the pregnancy," she explains. "The further along you get in pregnancy, the less likely you are to have a miscarriage."
That said, if you're experiencing serious, constant cramping and spotting or heavy bleeding, call your ob-gyn right away, because those could be signs of a miscarriage, Dr. Dolan says. A call to your doctor is also in order if you're having severe pain, especially if it's on one side of your pelvis, that's sustained or getting worse. That could be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy, a serious complication in which the fertilized egg implants in a fallopian tube.
Otherwise, be mindful of the degree of pain you're feeling. "If cramping is mild, take it easy. No tampons, no douching, no intercourse. Let the pregnancy play out its course," Dr. Dolan says. "If it's serious cramping, sustained pain, or pain that's getting worse, and if it's accompanied by vaginal bleeding, talk to your doctor."
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