Uterine Irritability during Pregnancy

pregnant woman grabbing back and stomach

Feeling contractions...and you're just barely into your third trimester? One of the health challenges to be on the lookout for during pregnancy is uterine irritability. An 'irritable uterus' is when the uterine muscles contract without causing any changes in your cervix or being a sign of labor.

Causes of Irritable Uterus

The reason some women get uterine irritability is unknown. However, triggers commonly cited may include:

  • bladder infection

  • intercourse

  • not eating enough

  • smoking

  • vaginal infection

  • urinary tract infection

  • having a full bladder

  • Constipation or dehydration

  • standing for long periods of time

  • physical activities such as lifting heavy objects, exercising, or having an orgasm

Women who've had several children (or large babies) commonly have an irritable uterus.

The incidence of preterm labor in women with uterine irritability is actually higher than that of the general population of expectant women (18.7% vs. 11%). Yet, the reasons for this risk are also unknown.

nurse checking pregnant woman's blood pressure

Signs of Irritable Uterus

Irritable uterus symptoms may be similar to the Braxton Hicks ("practice contractions"), but Braxton Hicks contractions usually are not painful and tend to be irregular. The contractions associated with IU, however, can seem like the "real thing" because of their intensity, although they don't have the regularity of actual labor. In addition, irritable uterus symptoms tend to include some pain or discomfort and seem to worsen as the expectant mom's activity increases. These symptoms can last over an hour or so.

Diagnosing This Condition

To properly diagnose whether you have an irritable uterus, your ob-gyn will likely track your contractions, using special equipment (e.g., pressure-sensitive belts). Your doctor may also recommend testing to see if you might be at risk for preterm labor. He or she may also request an ultrasound to check your cervix and monitor your growing baby's health status.

Studies show that women with uterine irritability who have gone into preterm labor (as compared with other risk factors) are more likely to deliver their babies before 34 weeks.

Treating Irritable Uterus

Some ob-gyns and other health professionals offer these suggestions for minimizing irritable uterus contractions:

  • Rest with your feet up

  • Lay down on your side for several hours

  • Drink plenty of water (without maintaining a full bladder).

  • Lower your stress levels with stress-reduction techniques like meditation, etc.

Depending on the intensity of the contractions, your ob-gyn may also prescribe medicine in an effort to prevent them or to ease the pain. Your doctor may also suggest that you take magnesium supplements every day.

Finally, if your doctor thinks you're at risk for preterm labor, he or she may put you on bed rest. That means that you could be in bed most of the day (complete bed rest), or on "partial bed rest." The latter means you'll spend several hours a day resting. Alternatively, your doctor may recommend "pelvic rest," which means no sexual activity at all.

pregnant woman having contractions

How to Know if You're Having Real Contractions

It's important, whether you're experiencing an irritable uterus or Braxton Hicks, to realize that these contractions might lead up to preterm labor. If you have contractions that seem to be more painful or are spaced regularly apart, then you might be in actual labor. If that is the case, then you need to get to the hospital immediately. Plus, if your water breaks or you experience other leakages of fluid or blood, you'll need to get in touch with your doctor right away.

Note: Any suggestions in this article are of a general nature only, and are not meant to replace recommendations from a medical doctor