Braxton-Hicks or Real Labor Contractions?
Braxton-Hicks, named for the doctor who identified them, are real, honest-to-goodness uterine contractions. If you were to see them on a contraction monitor they would register as real contractions. They certainly feel like real contractions - the pain is very real. However, Braxton-Hick contractions are not considered "real" contractions because they lack a few peculiarities that are consistent in labor contractions. With Braxton-Hicks, your cervix doesn't dilate and the contractions are irregular. They don't become stronger or longer either, both attributes necessary for real labor.
Usually beginning in the second trimester and becoming more consistent and pronounced as your pregnancy progresses, Braxton-Hicks contractions can be trigger by almost anything. The tightening in the abdomen caused by the uterus becoming hard can be caused by someone touching your belly or the baby moving around. Often referred to as practice contractions or false contractions, Braxton-Hicks contractions are not necessarily painful - they're probably considered more uncomfortable than anything else. They often come in groupings of four or so per hour, each contraction lasting a few seconds, and then they leave. They may recur in a few days or a few weeks. They're really unpredictable.
Pain Causes: Round Ligament Pain
But, Braxton-Hicks may not be the only cause of cramping during later pregnancy. So, if it isn't Braxton-Hicks, what is it? Well, it could be the infamous round ligament pain that attacks women in their second and third trimesters. A sharp, shooting pain strikes the abdomen and it may be hard to discern exactly what just happened. You wonder if the baby kicked really hard or if you are about to go into labor.
Round ligament pain is common in the later stages of pregnancy, usually starting in the second trimester. The round ligaments are two ligaments that attach to the uterus in close proximity to the fallopian tubes. Extending outward through the groin area, they eventually attach to the labia majora. The ligaments provide support for the uterus by pulling it forward and downward. As the uterus grows and stretches, more stress is put on the ligaments which, when they become stretched can cause a sudden grabbing or sharp pain in the groin area. Sometimes it feels like a dull ache in the abdomen or groin.
The way to confirm whether the pain is round ligament pain is to check in with your healthcare provider. Round ligament pain comes in short, sharp spurts. If the pains last longer or don't subside within a minute or two, then call the doctor - it could be serious. Bleeding, back pain, fever or any changes vaginally are also important signals that something is definitely not right. If the pain is round ligament pain, usually the best treatment is rest. Avoid making any sudden movements and if you have to shift positions, do so slowly. A heating pad or warm compresses to the groin area often help ease the discomfort as well.
Real Labor Pain
If the pain isn't Braxton-Hicks and it isn't round ligament pain, it could well be that you are experiencing real labor. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict when labor will start nor can you know what will trigger it. However, for about a month before real labor starts, your body begins to prepare. You may figure out what's going on or you may notice labor symptoms beforehand - then again, you may not.
Symptoms of Labor--It's Baby Time
Your baby may drop. This is called "lightening". You may feel a heaviness in your pelvis and the space between the top of your belly and your ribcage becomes wider. You can actually catch your breath. This indicates the baby has probably dropped into position for birth. Movement will likely lessen a bit as the baby prepares for entry into this world.
Some of the first signs of labor are an increase in Braxton-Hicks contractions. Braxton-Hicks contractions can come every ten to 20 minutes apart, but if they don't increase in intensity and duration, then they are likely false labor. If they become more frequent and more intense, it could signal pre-labor. Your cervix will be ripening and thinning at this point. Ripening of the cervix means that the connective tissue of the cervix begins to soften and thin. The Braxton-Hicks contractions may help with this process somewhat. As the cervix thins and softens, dilation begins to occur.
You may lose your mucus plug or have a "bloody show". The mucus plug that sealed your cervical canal until this point may come out in one lump or as an increase in vaginal discharge over several days. It may be tinged with blood, ergo the title bloody show. Your water may break, either in a trickle or a gush, and within a few hours you're rockin' and rollin'.
If you don't start having regular contractions within a certain amount of time after your water breaks, you'll be induced to avoid the baby getting an infection.
Labor and Delivery
There are many places on this site where you can learn more about labor and delivery. Become better prepared by visiting one of them.