Cramping and abdominal pain during pregnancy don't have to be signs that something is wrong by any means — often, they're nothing more than slightly unpleasant "side effects" of growing a baby. When you experience sharp stomach pain during pregnancy, however, it can point to serious complications.
Knowing what the causes of such sharp pains are can help you identify problems in a timely manner.
Round Ligament Pain
Round ligament pain is one of the most common causes of a sharp, stabbing discomfort in pregnant women. It is caused by the stretching of the round ligament, one of the ligaments that support your uterus. The pain may be felt on one or both sides, and is usually triggered by sudden movements, including sneezing, that stretch the ligament too far, too quickly. The discomfort shouldn't last more than a few seconds, and is most likely to occur during the second trimester of pregnancy. (Round ligament pain can also manifest as a dull, achy pain, but that's not what we're discussing in this medical answer.)
Though uncomfortable, women experiencing round ligament pain will be happy to know that it is considered a normal, benign part of pregnancy.
An ectopic pregnancy is one that develops outside of the uterus, and most commonly in one of the fallopian tubes. Up to one in every 40 pregnancies is ectopic, and with very rare exceptions can't be continued — these very rare exceptions do not include pregnancies developing in a fallopian tube, which can rapidly become life-threatening for the mother if they are not detected in a timely manner and the relevant fallopian tube ruptures.
Pain and bleeding are usually the first symptoms, while additional signs of ectopic pregnancy can include low blood pressure, fainting or dizziness, low back pain, and even shoulder and neck pain. While the pain associated with an ectopic pregnancy may be fairly mild and dull, it can also be severe and sharp.
Approximately one in five pregnancies will end in miscarriage, most frequently during the first trimester. The main symptoms associated with a miscarriage are vaginal bleeding and pain. As a miscarriage causes contractors just like labor and delivery does, some women will experience a sharp and severe abdominal pain that comes and goes. Miscarriages can also lead to fairly severe lower back pain. As a miscarriage progresses, patients will notice the passing of tissues and clots.
A placental abruption is a medical complication during which the placenta detaches from the uterus before the baby is delivered. While rare, placental abruption is a very serious pregnancy complication that can be life-threatening. It can happen around a mother's due date, but also at any time following the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Symptoms of a placental abruption include a hard and tender abdomen, bloody vaginal discharge, and sometimes rupture of membranes (broken waters), as well as a very severe pain that some women will certainly describe as "sharp".
Women who have not already been diagnosed with a benign condition that can lead to sharp abdominal pain, notably round ligament pain, are advised to seek immediate medical help in the event they experience such sensations. In some cases, acting immediately can save your life, your baby's, or both.
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