Abdominal Muscle Spasm: Medical Causes and Related Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By Kelsey Trull, PA-C
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Like any other muscles in the body, your abdominal muscles can have spasms. These occur from muscle strain during heavy use or overuse, fatigue, dehydration, and alcohol or drug use. Abdominal muscle strain is a common injury among athletes and can cause muscle spasms. Abdominal spasm can also occur during pregnancy. Sometimes abdominal spasms are due to acute disorders of the intestines, such as bowel obstruction, perforation, or diverticulitis. This is because the colon and small intestine are the predominant organs in the lower abdomen. Other causes coming from organs within the abdomen include gallstones, hernia, and ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.

This article will outline some of the possible causes of abdominal spasms, including why they might happen in pregnancy. It will also explain what to do if you experience abdominal spasms.

What causes abdominal muscle spasms during pregnancy?

a woman is walking with her hand on her stomach
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Many people experience stomach spasms or movements in their stomachs during pregnancy. This can be a new and concerning feeling, but there are many possible causes that are not serious or harmful to the person or fetus.

Fetus moving

The fetus can move inside the uterus as it stretches its limbs. This is a healthy sign. It can cause sensations including:

  • fluttering
  • swishing
  • rolling
  • tumbling
  • kicking
  • jabbing
  • elbowing

People might start to feel a fetus moving inside them from 16–24 weeks of pregnancy onward, though this can vary.

Muscle stretching

Some people report a feeling of sharp cramps or spasms on one side of the lower stomach. This can be due to ligament pain. It happens because the ligaments in the abdominal area are moving and stretching to accommodate the growing bump. This is expected.

Some people experience these feelings as growing pains.

Gas and constipation

Trapped gas and constipation are common in pregnancy. They can happen due to hormonal changes.

Spasms from gas and constipation are usually mild and may go away if you:

  • change position
  • take a rest
  • pass stool or gas

Braxton-Hicks contractions

In the second or third trimester of pregnancy, some people may experience Braxton-Hicks contractions. These are contractions of the uterus, but they do not mean you are going into labor. Instead, they prepare your body for labor.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually not painful, but they can be uncomfortable. People describe them as mild cramps or a tightening in the abdomen. The feeling often comes and goes.

Urinary tract infection

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in pregnancy. They happen when bacteria enter and travel up the urethra.

People with UTIs may experience abdominal pain and sometimes pain when they pass urine. See your doctor for treatment.

Serious causes of abdominal spasms in pregnancy

There is a chance abdominal spasms may due to one of the following causes:

  • Ectopic pregnancy: A fertilized egg embeds itself outside of the uterus. Symptoms, such as stomach pain, bleeding, and shoulder pain, can appear between 4 and 12 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Miscarriage: Bleeding and pain before 24 weeks of pregnancy may be a sign of miscarriage or threatened miscarriage. This is where you experience bleeding, but you have not miscarried.
  • Preeclampsia: Severe, persistent pain, especially on the right side of the bottom of the ribcage, can signify preeclampsia. It involves high blood pressure. You may notice a headache and problems with your sight. You may also have swollen feet, face, and hands.
  • Premature labor: Call your midwife or physician if you are having regular cramps or tightening sensations in the abdomen and are less than 37 weeks pregnant.
  • Placental abruption: The placenta can come loose from the wall of the uterus. It causes bleeding and severe, persistent pain.

Learn nine symptoms to never ignore when you are pregnant here.

Contacting a doctor for abdominal spasms in pregnancy

Abdominal spasms and cramps in pregnancy are usually not a cause for concern. However, if you are concerned in any way, you should seek medical care.

Learn more about when to contact a doctor if you are pregnant here.

What causes abdominal muscle spasms outside of pregnancy?

Your abdominal muscles can have spasms just like your other muscles. This can come from muscle strain during heavy use or overuse, fatigue, dehydration, and alcohol or drug use.

Athletes often have abdominal muscle strain, which can cause muscle spasms. Muscle spasms could also come from acute disorders in abdominal organs, particularly the intestines.

Gastrointestinal causes of abdominal muscle spasm

Stomach muscle spasms may happen due to gastrointestinal (GI) disorders including:

  • colic
  • diverticulitis, which refers to inflammation of an atypical pocket in the colon
  • hernia
  • intussusception, which is a condition in which one part of the intestine collapses into another part
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Other possible causes of abdominal muscle spasm

Abdominal muscle spasms can also happen because of other causes, including:

  • alcohol consumption
  • cholecystitis, or gallstones
  • kidney stones
  • period pain

Serious or life threatening causes of abdominal muscle spasm

In some cases, abdominal muscle spasms may be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

Learn more about possible causes of abdominal pain here.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of abdominal muscle spasm

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or healthcare professional will ask you several questions related to your stomach muscle spasm including:

  • How long have you had these abdominal muscle spasms? How often do they occur?
  • Have you noticed anything that seems related to their occurrence?
  • Have you experienced any abdominal pain or bloating?
  • Have you seen any changes in your bowel movements or habits?
  • Have you had any bleeding from your rectum or blood in your urine?
  • Have you had any kind of stomach upset or heartburn?
  • How much alcohol do you drink?
  • What medications are you taking?

When to contact a doctor

Seek immediate medical care if you have severe spasms. Also seek immediate care if you have persistent stomach muscle spasms along with any of the following symptoms:

Seek prompt medical care if your abdominal muscle spasm is persistent, is recurrent, or causes you concern.

Treatment

Antispasmodic medications may help ease the pain of abdominal muscle spasms. Depending on the cause of the abdominal spasms, doctors may recommend other medications, such as:

  • antidiarrheals
  • laxatives
  • antacids
  • antibiotics
  • antinausea medications
  • antiflatulence medications

At home

Treating abdominal pain at home can involve:

  • staying hydrated by drinking clear fluids
  • resting
  • eating bland foods

Avoid using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. These can irritate your stomach if the cause is gastrointestinal.

If the spasms are muscular, try:

  • gently stretching your abdomen
  • applying heat or cold packs
  • stopping the activity that may have caused the spasms

Prevention

It is not always possible to prevent abdominal spasms. Prevention methods will also depend on the cause of the spasms.

However, some general prevention tips for abdominal spasms and pain include:

  • avoiding overworking the muscles
  • stretching the muscles before and after strenuous activity
  • eating adequate amounts of fiber
  • avoiding carbonated drinks
  • following a diet to reduce certain GI symptoms, such as a lactose-free diet

Summary

In pregnancy, abdominal spasms and pain may be due to gas, constipation, the fetus moving, or Braxton-Hicks contractions. They may also happen due to more serious causes such as preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancy. You should always contact a doctor if your abdominal spasms are severe, are persistent, or concern you in any way.

Outside of pregnancy, abdominal spasms and pain may be the result of digestive issues, hernia, kidney stones, or other conditions. Seek medical help if the pain comes on suddenly, is severe, or happens with other new symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Kelsey Trull, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 May 24
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