What exactly is an irritable uterus?

You may experience more than just a few usual Braxton Hicks contractions and be told that you have an irritable uterus. Midwife Pippa Hime looks at just what exactly this is and how it can be managed in pregnancy.


The uterus is a muscular organ, and throughout a pregnancy it can have little contractions. Often these go unnoticed until the third trimester when they start to be felt as what we commonly call Braxton Hicks. These are irregular contractions that in essence warm up the uterus for labour – the main event.

ALSO SEE: Braxton Hicks contractions explained

Some women’s uteruses are a little more active though, which means you experience a lot more of these warm up contractions. This is referred to as an irritable uterus. An irritable uterus is when you start to feel frequent and regular contractions during your pregnancy. This can occur early in the pregnancy. These contractions don’t actually dilate the cervix and unlike Braxton Hicks, they are not relieved by rest.

What does an irritable uterus feel like?

It can feel like a hardening or tightening of the tummy. These mild contractions of the uterus can feel similar to menstrual cramps.

What causes an irritable uterus?

Often the cause is unknown, but it can be linked to stress, exhaustion or infection.

What should I do if I suspect I have an irritable uterus?

Often confused with early labour, these mild contractions often feel like strong period pains. If you suspect an irritable uterus, contact a health care professional. Most likely, you’ll be hooked up to a cardiotocograph (CTG) machine for a non-stress test. The CTG machine measures both the foetal heart rate and the contractions of your uterus. The distinction between an irritable uterus and preterm labour is that there are no cervical changes. This means the cervix does not start to dilate as it would in labour.

ALSO SEE: How to tell the difference between true labour and false labour

How is it managed?

In most cases no treatment necessary. It often resolves on its own. However, if your doctor is concerned, you may be given steroids to mature your baby’s lungs as an irritable uterus can lead to preterm labour. You may be required to stay in hospital on bed rest with regular monitoring via CTG. You may also be prescribed medication to reduce the irritability of the uterus.

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