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Period Cramps vs. Early Pregnancy Cramps: What's the Difference?

08.09.2023 / Hannah Berman
An up close photo of a woman standing with her hands on her hips showing her stomach. She wears a brightly patterned top and shorts with her stomach exposed.

It is a position almost universally agreed upon that period cramps suck. This habitual clenching of the uterine walls is a pain that most people who menstruate deal with far more often than they’d like. 

>>RELATED: 8 Symptoms That Could Be Related to Your Period - And How to Get Relief

During early pregnancy, your body also goes through cramping — we really can’t catch a break, can we? If you’re trying to conceive (TTC) or in the early stages of pregnancy and you develop cramps, these cramps might throw you into a panic thinking that you’re losing your pregnancy; if you’re not TTC, you might be confused by cramps that don’t end in menstruation. 

Luckily for those who are TTC and those who aren’t, there are some distinct differences between period cramps vs. early pregnancy cramps. Read on to learn how to tell them apart. 

What do period cramps feel like?

Menstrual cramps — or dysmenorrhea, if you’re feeling particularly medical — are pains in your lower abdomen area that often strike either during your period or right before it. Some people experience only slight or mild pain, while others tend to have very intense pain. 

The reason why your body is sending these signals of distress is because your uterus muscle is actively contracting in an attempt to shed its lining. That lining is the blood and tissue that comes out of your body when you’re on your period. 

Risk factors for having particularly painful periods include a family history of period pain, smoking, and having conditions like endometriosis. Also, people who started getting their periods at a young age tend to have worse dysmenorrhea.

Do early pregnancy cramps feel like period cramps?

Early pregnancy cramps, on the other hand, are a common occurrence during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. After implantation, when a fertilized egg implants in the lining of your uterus, you may have a few mild implantation symptoms, like bloating, constipation, and light cramping.

There are two distinct types of early pregnancy cramps.

The first is a dull, ache-y pain that lasts anywhere between a few minutes and a couple of hours. This pain is not too intense — people report that it feels like a slight twinge — and often can be alleviated if you change your position. 

The other type of early pregnancy cramp is a sharp, sudden, and intense pain located in the vagina. It’s often referred to as “lightning crotch” because it comes and goes in an instant, with no lasting effect.  

Pain and general bodily discomfort in the early stages of pregnancy can often be chalked up to the fact that the uterus is busy expanding. When the uterus expands, some the early pregnancy cramps you experience might feel similar to period cramps. 

Both typical types of early pregnancy cramps can be momentarily scary, but they don’t mean anything about the state of your pregnancy, and should fade away on their own. 

Period cramps vs. early pregnancy cramps: location and duration

One way to differentiate between period pain and pregnancy pain is by figuring out where the pain is located. When you have period cramps, they are usually emanating from a specific spot on your lower abdomen, right above your panty line. You might even be able to tell which of your ovaries is releasing an egg by sensing which side of your lower abdomen is experiencing pain.

Early pregnancy cramps, on the other hand, tend to affect your entire lower abdomen area, and often the pain can also be perceived in the back. In the case of lightning crotch, the pain will be localized to your vagina.

Another method for telling the difference between period cramps and early pregnancy cramps is keeping track of timing. Usually, the duration of the cramps will indicate what type they are: period cramps can start up to three days before your period, and can last for the duration of your period, while pregnancy cramps typically land within the timeline of a few minutes to a few hours. Tracking the timing of your cramps will help you determine which type of cramps you’re experiencing. 

How to deal with period cramps vs. early pregnancy cramps

There are a variety of different ways to deal with period cramps, whether you’re looking for a home remedy or medication. Some methods to deal with early pregnancy cramps are the same, while others are unique to pregnancy.

Dealing with period cramps

When you’re experiencing painful period cramps, there are a host of period remedies, both medical and homeopathic, available to help you out. Here are just a few: 

  • Take over-the-counter pain medication, like Ibuprofen or Advil, to dull pain.
  • Use a hot water bottle or heating pad on your stomach and lower back.
  • Drink more water in order to cut down on bloating.
  • Drink tea and eat anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Avoid caffeine, which makes your blood vessels tighten and can make period cramps more painful.

If you experience menstruation pain that interferes with your day-to-day life and doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medication, seek advice from a healthcare provider — you could benefit from a type of hormonal birth control that eliminates ovulation, or, in some cases, surgical intervention. 


Dealing with early pregnancy cramps

If you’re dealing with early pregnancy cramps, there are a few methods you can try to ease the pain: 

  • Shift your position or change the way you’re sitting. 
  • Ease up on exercise to give your body a break. 
  • Help your stomach muscles relax by heating them with a hot water bottle or a heating pad. 
  • Eat more fiber to help digestion. 
  • Buy a pregnancy belly band to support your belly weight.

If you’re wondering at what point you need to start worrying about early pregnancy pains, pay attention to your underwear. You should be concerned if you also find that you’re spotting or have vaginal bleeding, which may be a sign that you’re having a miscarriage — in that case, call your doctor or OB-GYN. 

Period cramps vs. early pregnancy cramps: the takeaway

Period cramps and early pregnancy cramps can often feel similar, but the best way to tell them apart is the location of the pain and the duration.

No matter why you have them, cramps are annoying and painful. Still, that doesn’t mean they have to ruin your life — and hopefully, with this knowledge in your back pocket, now they’re a little less mysterious, too. 


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