An irritable uterus, or uterine irritability, produces frequent and sometimes uncomfortable contractions for pregnant individuals. Although people often confuse uterine irritability with “false labor,” it is different and is not usually a sign of serious issues.

Individuals who experience frequent uterine contractions during pregnancy may have an irritable uterus (IU). Unlike false labor contractions, such as Braxton-Hicks contractions, IU contractions are stronger, more frequent, and can last longer, causing pain and discomfort.

This article overviews the symptoms and causes of IU. It also provides information on the next steps for pregnant people experiencing this condition.

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True labor contractions are different from both false labor and IU contractions.

During active labor, contractions are powerful, last for 60 seconds or longer, and occur in regular intervals. In contrast, Braxton-Hicks or false labor contractions begin around the second or third trimester of pregnancy, are irregular, less intense, and usually stop with activity or rest.

IU contractions fall somewhere in between the two. They are typically more intense than Braxton-Hicks contractions but do not reach the same level of intensity as true labor contractions. Unlike Braxton-Hicks contractions, IU contractions do not respond to activity or rest, meaning they do not go away or become less frequent with activity level or position changes.

Learn about different types of labor contractions.

Symptoms of an irritable uterus include:

  • frequent and strong uterine contractions
  • cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen and pelvis
  • lower back pain
  • tightness in the belly that worsens with activity or movement

Pregnant people who suspect they have IU should contact their doctor if their contractions are frequent and intense or if they experience any of the following symptoms:

Although IU is a common condition, it can cause concern and be uncomfortable and even painful.

However, there are a few things a person with IU can do to help manage their symptoms:

  • staying hydrated
  • reducing stress, where possible
  • resting and avoiding overexertion
  • eating small, frequent meals
  • avoiding trigger factors, such as caffeine and spicy foods
  • avoiding lifting heavy objects
  • practicing relaxation techniques, such as Lamaze breathing or meditation

Doctors may also recommend nifedipine (Procardia) to help manage IU.

To diagnose IU, doctors will first rule out other potential causes of symptoms, such as preterm labor or infection. They may perform a physical exam or ultrasound to check the cervix and monitor contractions.

Doctors may also perform a fetal fibronectin test to help determine the risk of preterm labor.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about uterine irritability.

How does uterine irritability differ from Braxton Hicks?

IU contractions are more frequent and intense than Braxton Hicks and can be uncomfortable or even painful for some during pregnancy. IU contractions do not respond to activity or rest, meaning they do not go away or become less frequent with activity level or position changes.

Will uterine irritability affect the fetus?

IU contractions can be uncomfortable and painful for some, but they do not harm the fetus.

How does uterine irritability relate to preterm labor?

In 1995, researchers discovered a link between IU and preterm labor. Their findings suggested that 18.7% of individuals with uterine irritability experience preterm labor compared with 11% without IU.

Uterine irritability (UI) is a condition that causes frequent and sometimes uncomfortable contractions in pregnant people. It is different from false labor and usually not a cause for concern.

Symptoms include frequent and strong contractions, cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen and pelvis, and lower back pain.

Pregnant individuals who suspect they have UI should contact their doctor if they experience vaginal bleeding or spotting. Other causes for concern that require medical attention include fluid leaking from the vagina, decreased fetal movement, or painful contractions every 5 to 10 minutes.