At the beginning of pregnancy, even before the missed period, you can have cramps that are deceiving. The cramps can feel just like period cramps, and it can be associated with the typical breast tenderness that often occurs before the period. The difference between getting your period and being pregnancy is that the cramping often disappears after the period is missed and only occurs occasionally in the first trimester as the uterus is in the process of growing.
The breast tenderness tends to stay after the period is missed and is a prominent symptom in early pregnancy. Cramps and breast tenderness, along with an increase in cervical mucus, are the most common early pregnancy symptoms.
Cramping can happen because the uterus is stretching beyond its usual capacity. This can be scary, and women often feel that this means they are going to have a miscarriage. This is, fortunately, not true and is simply an early pregnancy sign that, when unassociated with bleeding, has no dangerous meaning whatsoever. So, in answer to the question, “Are cramps a symptom of pregnancy?” the answer is “yes”.
The cramps may confuse a woman who has had a positive pregnancy test before a missed period. They may be misconstrued as a negative sign when, in fact, they are perfectly normal. Cramps are just nature’s way of saying that the uterus is filling with an increase in thickness of the uterine lining that is perfect for supporting implantation, which occurs about 9-11 days after ovulation. Some women get implantation bleeding when the two different circulatory systems merge to make the placenta, and this can even be more confusing. A woman can feel that this bleeding represents a period when it is usually only light spotting, lasting one to two days at most.
The signal that this implantation bleeding is just that and not a period is that it is so short and light in nature when compared to a regular period. When it comes to pregnancy symptoms, abdominal cramping along with spotting can worry the average woman who doesn’t realize that this is part of the normal implantation process and doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the pregnancy at all.
The only time that stomach cramps should be worrisome in pregnancy is when it is associated with moderate to heavy bleeding and even then, the pregnancy might still be normal. Only an early pregnancy ultrasound can tell if the pregnancy is healthy, and usually this is accompanied by having the doctor do serial HCG levels. You see, the HCG level usually doubles every 36-48 hours in early pregnancy although the absolute value of the HCG can vary greatly from pregnancy to pregnancy. In the presence of abdominal cramping and bleeding, the doctor will do a quantitative HCG level on one day and repeat this level in 48 hours. If the number has doubled during that time, it doesn’t matter much how much cramping and bleeding you are having as long as you don’t pass products of conception. Usually, the bleeding stops if it is a normal pregnancy and doesn’t recur again.
Some women will have pregnancy symptoms, menstrual cramps and other signs of an impending period every four weeks or so and will not know they are pregnant until they finally miss a period or until they begin to show. Fortunately, this is not very common, and there are only a few women in the US every year that actually go to term not recognizing that they are pregnant. They have cramping and bleeding every month, but they also have a healthy pregnancy going on at the same time.
Knowing that cramping in early pregnancy is normal may be just the thing to be able to tolerate it. Some women take ibuprofen or Tylenol® for these types of cramps. There is nothing wrong with that, especially before the missed period and many women have taken these medications, not knowing they were pregnant. Ideally, however, if a woman knows she is pregnant and is having cramps, it is better to tolerate the cramps with a warm bath or a hot water bottle than it is to take medications that may cross the placental barrier and interfere with the growing embryo.