You’re not alone if you’ve ever called your doctor with weird cramps only to hear: yes, that’s normal. It could be a myriad of things causing a pinch in your uterine area, but many women don’t realize that one cause might be ovulation.
Susan Wysocki, a board member and medical advisor for the American Sexual Health Association, says ovulation is constantly misunderstood.
What is ovulation, anyway?
So first, it’s important to know exactly what’s going on: ovulation is a one-step process in which an egg drops from the ovary into the fallopian tube. Many women think ovulation is occurring for two weeks, but what’s really happening is that your body is preparing to ovulate during those two weeks. Ovulation is simply the moment the egg drops, and it’s just that: one moment.
“A lot of women will think the body is preparing for ovulation during the 14 days after the start of the period,” she says. “But the body is preparing for ovulation during the 14 days before the next period, plus or minus a day or two.”
So what’s happening during this prep phase? During this time, the ovary is starting to “recruit” eggs, getting them ready for ovulation. It varies woman to woman how many eggs are “recruited” during each cycle.
“And at the point of ovulation, one of those eggs has matured enough so that it is then released from the ovary into the fallopian tube, which is attached to the uterus.”
The eggs mature on follicles that are attached to the ovaries. When an egg is mature enough, the follicle bursts, dropping the egg into the fallopian tube. If it doesn’t burst, the follicle can fill with fluid and is often referred to as a follicular or functional cyst.
“You could also picture what happens when a tiny hair follicle gets blocked causing a pimple. Ovarian cysts are quite common and most of the time women don’t notice them. That is why these cysts are called functional cysts,” Wysocki says.
Pregnancy, the Pill, and ovulation
If a pregnancy occurs, that’s because there is live sperm present that meets the egg and fertilizes it in the fallopian tube. If a pregnancy does not occur, the egg just continues down the tube and when menstruation happens approximately 14 days later, the egg is expelled with the lining of the uterus.
Part of the cause for confusion around ovulation can be tied to how contraception changes what’s happening with your ovaries.
“When you’re on birth control pills, it interrupts that signal that would have recruited those eggs to mature, so that process isn’t happening at all,” Wysocki says. “With the IUD, some women may or may not ovulate, but the IUD itself is preventing other mechanisms that allow pregnancy to occur, primarily in that the medication in the IUD is creating an environment that is not helpful to sperm reaching the egg.”
So can you feel it?
But actually feeling the ovulation process doesn’t occur for every woman. Of course, as every woman’s cycle is different, this is no surprise.
There is a term called mittleschmerz, which is German for “middle pain,” reportedly affecting about one in five women, who will feel a sudden, sharp pain on one side of the abdomen when ovulation occurs.
“When the egg is released, there is a small amount of blood, like a drop and maybe not even, that also occurs and it causes a little pain,” Wysocki says. “But there are a lot of women who have never felt that and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean they aren’t ovulating.”
However, Wysocki says these pains could also be tied to gas or constipation or even bladder infections, so it’s not a good idea to rely on the pain to identify the moment of ovulation to either get pregnant or prevent pregnancy.
Regardless, though, cramping associated with ovulation doesn’t last more than a moment, she says. So if you’re feeling a constant pain, it’s best to consult your doctor.