How to Identify Implantation Cramps
The truth is: the phrase implantation cramps is a misnomer. The process of implantation cannot be felt physically. When an embryo implants into the uterine wall it is painless and imperceptible—and it happens on such a small cellular level that it simply isn’t possible to physically feel.
But as long as we’re symptom spotting, let’s indulge ourselves and review what happens in early pregnancy.
Here, we’ll explain:
- The most likely causes of cramping in early pregnancy
- Myths about implantation bleeding
- The physical changes that occur in early pregnancy
How do you tell the difference between implantation cramps and your period?
If you’re cramping and it’s still a few days before your period is due, you might wonder whether the pain you’re experiencing could be an early sign of pregnancy. Though some women do experience cramps or light spotting during early pregnancy, this isn’t one of the common first signs of pregnancy.
At such an early stage in pregnancy, there is absolutely no way to tell whether any symptoms you’re experiencing mean you could be pregnant or that your period is just on its way. (And if you’re trying to get pregnant, cycle tracking can help.)
What are implantation cramps?
There is no evidence that implantation causes cramps. When someone claims to have implantation cramps, it’s much more likely that the cramping is due to other physical processes that lead to mild cramping.
The hormone progesterone can cause bloating and abdominal discomfort. Progesterone levels are increased during early pregnancy and during the end of your menstrual cycle. It’s impossible to tell the difference between cramping that is caused by your upcoming period, or cramping that is caused by pregnancy, since the same hormone—progesterone—is responsible for both.
If it’s not implantation, what could be the cause of mild cramping?
The short answer? If you’re about to get your period, it could be higher levels of progesterone. Here’s why:
- Progesterone levels are high in the second half of your cycle (whether you are pregnant or not)
- Progesterone slows down digestion
- This slow down can lead to cramping
Here’s a more detailed description of what happens:
Your menstrual cycle has two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. It’s helpful to think of these as the “egg prep” (follicular) phase and “waiting for pregnancy” (luteal) phase. Each month, whether you ultimately get pregnant or not—your body is preparing for the possibility of pregnancy.
So, it’s likely that the hormonal processes involved in the “waiting for pregnancy” phase, are what causes cramping that gets misconstrued as a potential sign of implantation. After you ovulate and a mature egg is released, the corpus luteum is formed from the remains of the ovarian follicle, which is basically a shell around the egg.
The corpus luteum secretes high levels of progesterone and moderate levels of estrogen. Progesterone is what tells your uterine lining to thicken so that—if you do get pregnant this cycle—the embyro will have a place to attach and grow. So, late in the luteal phase, in the days before your period is due, levels of progesterone are very high.
Progesterone also relaxes your digestive muscles and slows down the digestion of food, leading to cramping. So, it doesn’t mean you’re not pregnant, but the cramping itself should not be considered a sign of anything.
Once LH secretions fall below a certain level, the corpus luteum will degenerate and levels of estrogen and progesterone will fall. You will shed your uterine lining (i.e. get your period) and the next cycle will begin.
When does implantation occur?
While it is possible for implantation to occur anywhere from six – 12 days past ovulation (DPO), the vast majority of the time implantation occurs between eight – 10 DPO. Even if you are going to get pregnant this cycle before implantation occurs, you are not pregnant yet, and no symptoms that you experience have any significance for your chances of being pregnant.
This is why it’s very helpful to track your cycle. If you know when you ovulated and how many days past ovulation you are, you will know if it’s even possible for symptoms you are experiencing to be related to pregnancy. (Also, check out our implantation calculator post, which will help you estimate when implantation could have occurred.)
If you’re only five days past ovulation and you experience some cramping, it can help put things into perspective: it’s impossible for implantation to have occurred yet, so you can give yourself permission to stop thinking about it!
The bottom line.
The truth is, there’s just no conclusive way to know if bleeding or cramping before your period indicates pregnancy. The best course of action is to wait until your period was supposed to arrive, then take a pregnancy test.