Lightning crotch is characterized by sharp, shooting, and short-lived pain in the pelvis during the third trimester. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of this common pregnancy complaint.

You're near the end of your pregnancy, minding your own business, when you suddenly feel a shooting pain "down there." The sensation lasts less than a minute, then it goes away as quickly as it came. Sound familiar? It does to Hilary Duff, who is currently pregnant with her third child and talked about these pains on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" March 12.

"I didn't have it with the other kids," Duff explained. "So I texted my midwife the other day, and was like, 'What's up with the stabbing pains in my vagina?'... It feels awful, like you're being struck by lightning." That might explain why the phenomenon, which affects some women in their third trimester, is often called lightning crotch pain. 

“Lightning crotch is a specific phenomenon that happens in the last four to six weeks of pregnancy,” says Joyce Gottesfeld, M.D., OB-GYN for Kaiser Permanente in Denver. Contrary to what you may have heard, lightning crotch is not the same as round ligament pain, which happens when the ligaments around your uterus stretch to accomodate the baby. It’s also mistaken for sciatica and varicose veins, but these conditions actually occur for different reasons.

Keep reading to learn about the causes, symptoms, and prevention methods for this common third trimester complaint.

Lightning Crotch Symptoms

With lightning crotch, “women get shooting pains that originate in the crotch or groin area and may travel down the inner thigh,” says Dr. Gottesfeld.  These twinges generally happen at random, but they’re most common when you haven’t moved positions in the while (for example, when you're sleeping in bed or sitting on the couch). 

Pregnant women may describe lightning crotch pain as electric shocks, shooting pins and needles, or burning twinges. It comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds. Lightning crotch symptoms may be barely perceptible, or they can be so intense that you double over in pain. Aside from the pelvis, you might also feel lightning crotch in the vagina, rectum, or uterus.

What Causes Lightning Crotch?

At the end of pregnancy, your baby gets into the proper position for delivery (head down, facing your back) by descending into the birth canal. As this happens, a woman’s pelvic bones “pull away and separate,” says Dr. Gottesfeld. The baby’s head might also press against your cervix, and their body parts could hit a sensitive nerve endings near the pubic bone. All of this inner commotion can lead to lightning crotch pain.

When to Expect Lightning Crotch

Lightning crotch generally presents in the third trimester, as your body prepares for delivery. The severity depends on your baby’s position and size, as well as the pressure they put on your nerve endings. Pain might actually increase as your baby moves around inside the womb.

You can expect the lightning crotch pain to go away after your little one is born.  It’s also important to note that not every person experiences this sensation during pregnancy.

Preventing Lightning Crotch Pain

Because lightning crotch lasts for less than a minute, it’s hard to stop the shooting sensations. Your best bet is patiently waiting things out. Dr. Gottesfeld also recommends sitting down and stretching when the pain hits, because changing positions can help move your baby into a better location. 

Pregnant people can also take steps to prevent lightning crotch from happening in the first place, including:

  • Change positions throughout the day
  • Exercise regularly (cardio and stretching) to keep the pelvis and hips flexible
  • Wear a belly support belt to relieve pelvic pressure
  • Relax tight muscles with a prenatal massage or warm bath

When to See a Doctor

Pelvic pain is normal during pregnancy. Besides lightning crotch, it can have many other causes, including round ligament pain, sciatica, or varicose veins (although these conditions generally present as aching or pulling pain instead of sharp pain). It doesn’t hurt to bring up your symptoms with your doctor so they can properly diagnose it, says Dr. Gottesfeld. It’s especially important to visit your health care provider if the pain is accompanied by other worrisome symptoms, such as bleeding, dizziness, fever, severe headaches, blurry vision, or leaking fluid—all of which could indicate an infection or complication. 

Even though lightning crotch pain happens late in the third trimester, it’s not a sign of impending labor. However, some women might confuse intense lightning pain for contractions—especially if they’re a first-time mom. Call your doctor if the pain feels like strong menstrual cramps, comes at regular intervals, increases in duration or intensity, or is accompanied by backache or blood-tinged discharge. These signs could indicate that you’re actually in labor.