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5 Types Of Contractions During Pregnancy And What They Feel Like

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Contractions refer to the tightening and hardening of the uterine muscles. The pain or cramping often begins in the lower back and progresses to the front. Women may feel as though they are having heavy menstrual cramps and/ or back pain and pressure. However, the sensation may not be the same for all pregnant women.

Read this MomJunction post to understand how different types of contractions feel like, tips on how to manage them, and when you should see the healthcare provider.

Different Types Of Contractions

You might have heard of the different names for contractions.

1. Braxton Hicks contractions

They are regarded as “prodromal” or false contractions that usually begin around the sixth week and get more pronounced in the second or third trimester. They are a normal part of pregnancy, and prepare the body for labor. They do not cause cervical dilation (1).

What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?

The contractions are:

  • Concentrated in the abdomen rather than the back
  • Irregular and infrequent and do not increase in intensity
  • Painless but uncomfortable
  • Known to subside when you lie down, walk or empty your bladder

Causes of Braxton Hicks contractions

The following may trigger Braxton Hicks contractions (1):

  • Intense physical activity
  • Dehydration
  • A full bladder
  • Sexual activity

How to cope with Braxton Hicks contractions?

The following measures can help you to calm down or ease these contractions.

  • Drink water to rehydrate yourself.
  • Practice breathing exercises.
  • Change your position or activity levels (sitting to walking or being active to lying down).
  • Practice relaxation techniques, get a massage, take a warm bath, listen to music, read a book, or take a nap (1) (2).

If these techniques do not help, consult your healthcare provider for medical assistance.

2. Preterm labor contractions

These regular and true labor/birth contractions occur before the pregnancy reaches full-term (before 37 weeks). In some cases, it may lead to preterm birth (3).

What do preterm labor contractions feel like?

You might be having preterm labor contractions if you have the following signs.

  • More than five painful contractions per hour
  • Frequent and regular uterine contractions
  • Hardness of the abdomen
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Vaginal discharge and bleeding
  • Dull, low backache
  • Abdominal pain and pressure
  • Pressure in the pelvic area
  • Ruptured membranes

If you experience any of these, you should see a healthcare provider for further assessment.

Causes of preterm labor contractions

Factors that increase the risk of preterm labor contractions include (4)

  • History of previous preterm labor
  • Multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets)
  • Short spacing between pregnancies
  • Short cervix
  • High-stress levels
  • Certain infections
  • Abnormal conditions of the placenta, cervix, or uterus
  • Lifestyle triggers, including smoking, drugs, substance abuse, or obesity

How to cope with preterm labor contractions?

To lower your risk of preterm labor, you may follow these early treatment measures until you see a doctor. These measures might also help reduce your risk of having a preterm baby (5).

  • Keep sipping water and emptying your bladder as dehydration may also cause contractions.
  • Take a warm bath as it could relieve you from uterine muscle contractions.
  • Do not lie on your back. Lie down on one side and use a pillow at the back for support.
  • Try tracking your contractions for one hour. Begin counting the minutes from the start of one contraction to the start of the next. If you have more than four to five in an hour, it signals preterm labor.

3. Early labor contractions

These are slightly uncomfortable contractions that feel like mild to moderate menstrual cramps. The cervix dilates to about four centimeters in this case (6).

What do early labor contractions feel like?

Some of the common symptoms that one might experience are as follows (7). All pregnant women may not have the same symptoms.

  • Irregular contractions lasting about 30 to 45 seconds
  • Irregular contractions 5 to 20 minutes apart
  • Dull pain in the back
  • Severe cramps
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Fullness and pressure in the pelvic region
  • Pain radiating from the back to the front

First-time mothers might have several hours of early labor contractions without any cervical dilation. You should go to the hospital or call your delivering provider.

4. Active labor contractions

These are painful contractions that become more pronounced and indicate that delivery is approaching. The cervix dilates to about four to ten centimeters in this stage (6).

What do active labor contractions feel like?

The following symptoms may indicate active labor contractions (7):

  • Contractions lasting between 50 and 75 seconds
  • Contractions two to three minutes apart
  • Pressure and pain in the back as the baby ascends down the birth canal
  • A strong urge to push

You may also experience nausea, lightheadedness, chills, hot flashes, gas, and vomiting, along with active birth contractions.

What causes contractions during labor?

Contractions are caused when the pituitary gland releases the oxytocin hormone, which stimulates the uterine muscles to tighten and relax. These actions continue to help dilate your cervix and pushes the baby’s head onto the cervix to help it efface or thin more. (8).

5. Transition contractions

These are considered the most painful part of labor. They last for 60 to 80 seconds, with two to three minutes apart. The cervix dilates to about seven to ten centimeters (6) (9). They are associated with intense pressure in the rectal and vaginal regions. You may also experience vomiting, nausea, and shaking.

How to keep yourself comfortable during active labor and transition contractions?

The following measures might help you deal with the pressure and pain of contractions  (10).

  • Take a shower or a bath.
  • Walk or change positions.
  • Drink water as it could give you enough strength to go through the labor.
  • Get as much rest as possible.
  • Eat well.
  • Get a massage done by your partner. A lower-back massage and foot massage could make you feel good.
  • Practice meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques. These might help you to focus and gain energy.

Your doctor may discuss the pain management techniques, including oral medications and/or epidural anesthesia.

What Generally Happens In The Hospital?

Once you are at the hospital after the true contractions have started, here is what you may expect:

You will usually start in the triage area and have two monitors placed on your abdomen to monitor the baby’s heart rate tracing and your contraction pattern. -You will be asked questions about your symptoms regarding pain, frequency and intensity of your contractions. The nurse will check your cervix and if you are found to be in active labor will you move to a labor room. -She will then call your doctor to know you are there and get any orders that may be necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Do contractions hurt?

It depends on the type of contractions you are experiencing. True labor contractions are usually more painful than Braxton Hicks. But the intensity of pain varies from one woman to another.

  1. Do Braxton Hicks contractions turn into real contractions?

Braxton Hicks contractions do not turn into real labor contractions. They are false contractions that do not cause cervical dilation or lead to birth (1).

  1. When do real contractions start during pregnancy?

Real contractions are likely to start after the 37th week. If they occur before the 37th week, they are considered preterm contractions (11).

Understanding the difference between various contractions could help you not panic, but figure out your course of action. If you are in doubt, see your healthcare provider. Stay calm, practice relaxation techniques, and trust your body.

References:

1. Deborah A. Raines and Danielle B. Cooper; Braxton Hicks Contractions; StatPearls Publishing (2020).
2. Common Discomforts During Pregnancy; UNM Hospitals
3. Preterm labor; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health
4. Preterm Labor and Birth; The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
5. Preterm (Early) Labor; UNM Hospitals (2016)
6. Pregnancy & Labor; Indiana.edu
7. Contractions; Healthdirect, Australian Government, Department of Health
8. Contractions During Pregnancy: What to Expect; Healthwise Staff; British Columbia
9. Stages of Labour; Mid Cheshire Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust
10. Labor F.A.Q; Family Birth Place; University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System
11. When does labor usually start; NIH

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