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What are Uterine Contractions?

Sara Schmidt
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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During childbirth, a woman can experience motions in the uterus known as uterine contractions. These powerful, painful movements are a part of the childbirth process. They can also occur at other times, such as during menstruation and female orgasms.

Contractions have a variety of purposes during labor. They help release the hormone oxytocin into the mother's body, which helps her to dispense the milk needed to feed her baby. Breastfeeding itself can cause the uterus to contract, allowing it to shrink back to its normal pre-pregnancy size. Oxytocin may also help trigger maternal behaviors, as well as bonding between the mother and baby.

Uterine contractions also assist the cervix in thinning and dilating during childbirth, allowing for the delivery of the baby. Postpartum contractions help the uterus clot, aiding in the prevention of possible blood loss. The contractions also assist the infant in descending into the birth canal for delivery.

The pain produced by contractions depends on their strength and length. When labor begins, contractions are generally considered mildly painful. As labor progresses during a delivery, they typically become longer, as well as moderately to severely painful. This is particularly true during transition labor, which often produces intense pain.

Early uterine contractions may be the result of false labor, and these are known as Braxton Hicks contractions. Named by English physician John Braxton Hicks, these intermittent spasms may start as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, though they are generally not felt until the second or third trimester. Unlike labor pains, these are painless and irregular, and they are thought to prepare a woman for her baby's delivery.

Women may also experience these spasms during their menstruation, too. Though menstrual cramps are usually considered considerably less painful than labor ones, they can cause notable pain or discomfort. Some women find relief through exercise, using a heating pad or hot water bottle, or through other natural means. Several medications are also available to help remedy this pain. Women with more intense symptoms and recurring pain may need to see a gynecologist for treatment.

Sexual intercourse can also induce contractions in the uterus. During female orgasm, the vagina and uterus contract to support the transport of male semen to the fallopian tubes. Though these contractions are not always felt, they can occasionally be painful. Those during orgasm are more likely to be felt by pregnant women in late stages of pregnancy.

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Sara Schmidt
By Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for The Health Board, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
Discussion Comments
By anon357879 — On Dec 07, 2013

When contractions occur, the baby cannot rest/breathe. The longer the contractions the more danger it is causing the baby. Pitocin (oxytocin) should not be given if contractions lasts longer than 60 seconds and not more frequently than 1.5 minutes apart. Although it can induce, augment, and help shrink the uterus after the placenta is expelled. Carefully watch your contractions if you are being given Pitocin.

By yournamehere — On Jul 30, 2010

@musicshaman -- Tetanic contractions are long, uninterrupted contractions that sometimes occur during labor, and occasionally during pregnancy.

They can be quite painful, since they are so prolonged.

Anybody who experiences tetanic uterine contractions during pregnancy should contact their obstetrician immediately, since it can be a sign of labor for a preterm birth.

In some cases, tetanic uterine contractions can also be a sign of miscarriage, or a risk of miscarriage.

By musicshaman — On Jul 30, 2010

What is a tetanic uterine contraction? I have heard my sister-in-law throw the word around and was always curious.

By googlefanz — On Jul 30, 2010

I used to have the absolute worst uterine contractions during my period -- they were so bad that I would be nauseous! I would go through huge amounts of Motrin every month.

I went to my gyno and it turns out that I had severe dysmenorrhea.

She suggested that I go on the pill because the hormones can help regulate your period and even give you less contractions and cramps, and it definitely worked.

I was just glad to get some pain relief -- uterine contractions are one of those things you just have to experience to understand.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for The Health Board, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
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