What causes vaginal cramps?

Vaginal cramps or spasms may feel like strong, painful muscle contractions. While mild vaginal cramps can be a symptom of menstruation, painful cramps or vaginal cramps that occur outside of menstruation often have an underlying medical cause.

This article looks at some of the most common causes of vaginal cramps, as well as treatment options and when to see a doctor.

Causes

Possible causes of vaginal cramps include the following:

Infections

Woman with vaginal cramps holding crotch
Vaginal infections may cause cramps.

Vaginal infections can cause vaginal cramps, sharp pain, inflammation, and discomfort. Common types of vaginal infection include:

Infections can also cause fever and unusual discharge, which may be foul-smelling.

Menstruation

Vaginal cramps are a common symptom of menstruation. They occur as the uterus contracts to shed the uterine lining.

Although cramps higher up in the pelvis are more common, it is not unusual to feel cramping in the vagina as well.

While doctors would expect some mild cramping during menstruation, severe pelvic pain and bleeding are not typical period symptoms.

A doctor can prescribe medications, such as birth control pills, to reduce the incidence of pelvic pain and discomfort resulting from menstruation.

Dyspareunia

Dyspareunia is the medical term for painful sex. This pain may occur during or immediately after sex.

Some people also experience dyspareunia when they use tampons.

Dyspareunia typically feels like menstrual cramps with the addition of a deep, burning pain inside the pelvis.

Multiple causes of dyspareunia exist, including infections, inflammation, and a history of surgery on the vagina or uterus.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition that occurs when cells resembling uterine tissue grow outside the uterus.

This tissue contracts and bleeds during menstruation, but it cannot exit the body. This can result in significant pain and cramping.

If endometriosis develops in the vagina, it can cause cramping in this area. However, some people with vaginal cramping may be experiencing referred pain. Referred pain means that the tissue is contracting in other areas of the body, but the individual feels the pain in the vagina instead.

Pelvic floor disorders

New mother in hospital bed with baby after giving birth.
Women who have given birth may experience pelvic floor disorders.

Pelvic floor disorders are conditions that cause pain, cramps, and other symptoms in the pelvic floor muscles, which support the bladder, rectum, and uterus.

These disorders may occur after a woman has given birth, as delivery can weaken the pelvic floor.

In addition to vaginal cramps, pelvic floor disorders can lead to constipation, pain during sex, and difficulty controlling a urine stream.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

PID is a condition that occurs when an infection in the pelvic organs causes inflammation in the vaginal tissue.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and may include:

  • bleeding between periods
  • pain in the lower abdomen
  • pain during sex
  • unusual discharge from the vagina or an odor
  • vaginal cramps

People who have STIs, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, are more likely to experience PID.

Uterine fibroids

Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in the uterine wall. They are most common in people who are in their 30s and 40s but tend to go away after menopause.

Uterine fibroids can cause heavy bleeding, vaginal cramps, pain during sex, and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the lower abdomen.

Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia is a medical condition in which a person experiences pain in the vulva, the external female genitalia, for 3 months or longer without any known cause.

Miscarriage

Miscarriage, or pregnancy loss, occurs when a pregnancy ends at or before 20 weeks of gestation.

In addition to vaginal cramps, miscarriage can cause spotting or bleeding and pain in the abdomen.


Vaginal cramps during pregnancy

Vaginal cramps may occur during pregnancy for a variety of reasons. Mild cramps may be due to the implantation of the placenta or to cervical cell changes.

The growing uterus can also put pressure on the surrounding pelvic organs, causing some discomfort.

Vaginal cramps in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy can also indicate a miscarriage if bleeding accompanies them.

Sometimes, vaginal cramps during pregnancy can indicate that the baby’s delivery is imminent. If this occurs less than 37 weeks into the pregnancy, it is advisable to call a doctor to ensure that the symptoms do not indicate preterm delivery.

Together with contractions, vaginal cramping helps to make changes in the cervix to prepare the body for delivery ahead of the due date.

Vaginal cramping shortly before delivery may result in sharp or stabbing pains, which can indicate that the cervix is dilating to prepare for the birth.


When to see a doctor

Female patient in doctors office
Many causes of vaginal cramping are treatable.

While people can expect some mild vaginal cramps during menstruation, other instances of vaginal cramping can indicate underlying but usually treatable health issues.

A person should speak to a doctor if they are experiencing any of the following symptoms in addition to vaginal cramps:

  • foul-smelling or unusual discharge
  • a sensation of pelvic fullness and pressure
  • heavy or unexplained bleeding
  • severe pain
  • pain during sex
  • trouble controlling urination or feelings of urinary urgency

If a pregnant woman is concerned about vaginal cramps, especially those occurring alongside bleeding, she should speak to a doctor.


Takeaway

While mild vaginal cramps are often a standard symptom of menstruation, severe or recurrent cramps may have an underlying medical cause.

A doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend treatment options to alleviate pain and reduce the frequency of vaginal cramps.

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