Period Cramps or Early Pregnancy Cramps? How to Tell the Difference

Medically Reviewed By Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
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Cramps can occur during both menstruation and early pregnancy. This pain can be similar in both cases. However, some differences can help determine if you are experiencing period pain or early pregnancy pain. This article will discuss types of pain and other symptoms associated with periods and early pregnancy. It will also outline key differences, including other signs of early pregnancy and when to contact a doctor for cramps.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “female” and “women” when discussing people assigned female at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials.

Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

What do period cramps feel like?

Early pregnancy cramps can feel similar to menstrual cramps. Both involve pain in the lower abdomen or pelvic area that may be dull, sharp, ongoing, or intermittent.

To determine which one you are experiencing, you will likely need to consider other symptoms you may have.

Period cramps

It is common to experience painful periods, known as dysmenorrhea.

Period cramps occur due to the contraction of muscles in the uterus to help it shed its lining. Characteristics of period pain include:

  • pain that occurs in your lower abdomen or pelvis
  • pain in your lower back or thighs
  • intense bursts of pain
  • dull pain that lasts a long time
  • pain that occurs a few days before the start of your period or when bleeding begins

What are other symptoms of periods?

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In addition to menstrual cramps, you may experience a range of other symptoms before or during your period.

Premenstrual syndrome

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a group of symptoms that can occur in the days or weeks prior to your period.

More than 90% of women report experiencing PMS. Many symptoms of PMS overlap with those of early pregnancy, including:

However, if you are pregnant, you will likely have other symptoms not associated with menstruation.

What symptoms are specific to early pregnancy?

Certain symptoms are more likely to indicate pregnancy or may only occur if you are pregnant.

Missed period

For many people, missing a period is the most reliable sign of pregnancy.

Each month, your uterus prepares a lining for a possible pregnancy when an ovary releases an egg. If you do not become pregnant, you shed this lining as your monthly period.

When you become pregnant, your ovaries stop releasing eggs, and you stop menstruating for the duration. Your uterus retains the thickened lining instead of shedding it. Pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants in this lining.

If you think you could be pregnant and you miss a period, you can take a home pregnancy test. After taking the test, contact your OB-GYN to confirm if you are pregnant.

It is possible to miss a period for reasons other than pregnancy. Learn other possible reasons for a missed period.

Implantation symptoms

If you are pregnant, you may feel implantation pain when the fertilized egg implants into the uterus.

You may also see some light bleeding or spotting, with only a small amount of blood. Doctors call this implantation bleeding.

Learn more about implantation cramps and other symptoms.

Q:

What does implantation pain feel like?

Anonymous

A:

Implantation pain varies from patient to patient. It ranges from no symptoms in some to mild cramping, twinge, or dull aches.

Carolyn Kay, M.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Nausea or vomiting

PMS can cause some digestive symptoms, such as bloating or constipation. However, it does not commonly cause nausea or vomiting.

In contrast, nearly 80% of women report experiencing nausea, with or without vomiting, during pregnancy.

Unusual cravings or changes in taste

During your period, you may have changes in appetite or crave certain foods.

However, pregnancy cravings tend to be more unusual. You may suddenly lose interest in your favorite foods or crave new types of food you previously did not like.

You may have an increased sensitivity to taste or smell that can affect your appetite. It is also common to experience changes in how you taste food during pregnancy. For example, foods may taste more bitter or less sweet than usual.

Frequent urination

If you are pregnant, you may notice a more frequent need to urinate. This is not a common symptom of PMS.

Learn more about what to expect during the first month of pregnancy.

When should you take a pregnancy test?

If you have cramps and your period has not started when you expect it to, you can take a home pregnancy test. If you typically have regular periods, missing one is the most reliable symptom of early pregnancy.

It is possible to take a pregnancy test earlier. However, the results will be more accurate if you wait until after the first day of missing your period.

Even if the home test is negative, there is still a chance you may be pregnant. Pregnancy tests detect the presence of hCG in your urine. This hormone only occurs during pregnancy. If you take the test early, there may not be enough hCG in your urine to detect yet. Try taking the test again a few days later.

If you think you may be pregnant, contact your OB-GYN. They can evaluate you more thoroughly and accurately determine if you are pregnant.

Learn more about when to take a pregnancy test.

How can you treat cramps at home?

Whatever the cause of your cramps, it is possible to relieve pain with at-home treatments. These include:

  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen
  • placing a heating pad on your lower abdomen
  • soaking in a hot bath
  • practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation
  • getting light exercise, such as yoga
  • avoiding alcohol

If you may be pregnant or have certain chronic conditions, your doctor may recommend against taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This class of pain reliever includes ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve).

If there is a chance you may be pregnant, talk with your OB-GYN before taking any OTC pain medication. They can help determine what dosage, if any, is safe for you.

When should you contact a doctor for cramps?

Most often, menstrual pain will go away after your period begins or when it ends. If you have severe pain that disrupts your daily life or persists beyond your period, contact your doctor. The pain may result from an underlying condition that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment.

If you have cramps and have missed a period, contact your OB-GYN to confirm if you are pregnant.

It is common to experience some cramping and light spotting during early pregnancy. However, contact your OB-GYN or nurse midwife right away if you experience:

  • sudden, sharp pain
  • pain that worsens or does not go away
  • heavy bleeding
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • a fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher

These may indicate a serious condition, such as ectopic pregnancy, that requires immediate treatment. Contact your doctor when in doubt about any gynecological symptoms, particularly if you may be pregnant.

Summary

Period cramps and early pregnancy cramps can feel similar, with pain in the lower abdomen or pelvic area.

Many symptoms associated with PMS overlap with those of early pregnancy, such as fatigue, bloating, constipation, and light bleeding.

Other symptoms are specific to early pregnancy, including a missed period, nausea or vomiting, and unusual food cravings.

If you experience cramps and might be pregnant, contact your OB-GYN for an accurate test and evaluation. If you experience lower abdominal pain that is severe, worsening, persistent, or occurs with bleeding, contact your OB-GYN right away.

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Medical Reviewer: Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Pregnancy tests. (2021). https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/pregnancy-tests
  5. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). (2021). https://www.womenshealth.gov/menstrual-cycle/premenstrual-syndrome
  6. Signs and symptoms of pregnancy. (2019). https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/trying-for-a-baby/signs-and-symptoms-of-pregnancy/