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The "Irritable Uterus": What Does That Even Mean?!

My friend, the irritable uterus

There are a lot of fun, ridiculous terms thrown around in pregnancy but my personal favorites is: irritable uterus.

You can’t help but picture a uterus personified as Tommy de Vito (Robert de Niro’s character in Goodfellas) going through his classic rant:

“I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to $%&*-in’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?” — Tommy de Vito (as played by Robert de Niro)

In pregnancy, this phenomenon of irritable uterus (also called “uterine irritability”) is used to describe non-labor inducing contractions that occur frequently, sometimes painfully, sometimes painlessly, without any real consistency or pattern.

They are not true labor contractions in that they don’t lead to cervical change, a requirement for labor and ultimate baby expulsion. This big ‘ol muscle is simply twitching. Annoying, yes, but often harmless – a result of something as basic as dehydration, stress, or even a full bladder.


Irritable Uterus is not true labor contractions. They can occur frequently, sometimes painfully, sometimes painlessly, without any real consistency or pattern.

Should I be worried about contractions caused by uterine irritability?

Most likely not.

One study showed that a group of surveyed women, who exhibited contractions due to uterine irritability, had a higher percentage of preterm births as compared to the general population (18% vs. 11%). But, beyond this weak association, there isn’t any solid evidence showing a direct causal link between a twitchy baby oven and babies born before 37 weeks.

This is not to say there is no link, but rather a need for better data. Initiation of labor and the role that the uterus plays remains relatively mysterious. We simply do not have the data to understand how these seemingly benign contraction patterns may lead to complications like preterm birth.

irritable uterus comic
So angry!

Where did the silly name “irritable uterus” even come from?

Ok, here is the fun part (well, “fun” because I’m a huge nerd):

In 1851, a Dr. McKenzie wrote a piece in the London Journal of Medicine describing the condition. He started by remarking on the dueling titles of the time— hysteralgia and irritable uterus. The latter coined by a Dr. Gooch in 1831 (and, in my opinion, a welcome change from a term that associates our most impressive female organ with hysteria.)

In the early 1800’s, “irritable uterus” was actually used to describe a condition in non-pregnant women and unrelated to contractions

“It by no means accords with our observations, that those who are ‘sensitive in body and mind’ are more obnoxious to the ‘irritable uterus’ than those of an opposite temperament” — Dr. William Dewees, The American Journal of Medical Sciences, 1830

Of course, as wont to doctors of the day when describing lady issues, it all comes back to our mental state. A solution to treat the pain from the irritable uterus of 1830? Four to six leeches.

So, with this history in mind, why is it so hard to find a better adjective? Is the uterus truly “irritable” when it is in this state?

What does your irritable uterus say?


Looking for a better way to keep an eye on your irritable uterus? Check out how Melissa used Bloomlife to get to know her contractions – what they meant, how to quite them down, and how to prove to her care team that she wasn’t nuts.

Special thanks for our friend, Rebecca Roher, an awesome comic artist extraordinaire. Be sure to check out her fantastic comic Mom Body.

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Molly Dickens, PhD

About Molly

Molly has her PhD in Physiology and spent over a decade as an academic research scientist slightly obsessed with the colliding worlds of brain science, hormones, stress and the reproductive system. Nowadays she heads up Content and Community at Bloomlife and edits Preg U. Science is still her jam and she can't help but continue to dive into the research world to find interesting bits about pregnancy and parenting.


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