Millions of pregnant women assume they must struggle with low back pain and a variety of other aches, pains and discomforts. Many are told to just live with it. Making things more difficult is the fact that most medications for pain and inflammation aren’t safe to take during pregnancy. But the good news is that there are safe and very effective steps each mother-to-be can take to help alleviate her pain and discomfort.
Let’s look carefully at some of the changes that take place during pregnancy and what can be done to minimize their impact.
An early change is hormonal. Preparing the body for expansion, a hormone called relaxin softens muscles, ligaments and tendons so that the pelvis and skeleton can stretch. Fluid retention is also under hormonal control. The resulting excess fluid can compress areas such as the wrist and lead to temporary carpal tunnel syndrome, which can cause numbness in the thumbs and index fingers.
As the pregnant woman gains weight, the center of gravity of her body moves forward from its normal position at the waist. Like a seesaw, when weight is added to one side of her body, the other side needs something to balance it. When weight is added to the front, the back and neck muscles contract more to counter-balance this load. Now these muscles work much harder when a pregnant woman is upright, causing some of the neck, shoulder and back stiffness and fatigue.
Sciatica, which is pain in the buttocks that can radiate down the back of the leg, can also be a problem. One cause is the ligaments supporting the uterus. The uterus is held in place by a number of ligaments, which need to stretch as the baby grows. A particular ligament called the broad ligament can cause buttocks and sciatic-type pain as it stretches because its attachments are close to where it can pinch the sciatic nerve.
Added weight also increases stress on weight-bearing joints such as ankles, knees, hips and pelvis. This, in addition to swelling, can leave joints achy and stiff.
What can you do? First, check with your doctor. With physician approval, you can gain good posture and minimize the stress on your back and shoulders by doing pelvic tilts. These are easily done by standing against a wall and bringing your shoulders and head back toward the wall. Now do a pelvic tilt by flattening your back against the wall.
Calf stretches and chest expansion stretches are also effective in keeping you more comfortable as your body changes.
If you already have pain, an evaluation by a trained physical therapist with expertise in prenatal problems can prove helpful. For example, if you are experiencing sciatic pain, the therapist can determine the cause, whether bony, ligamentous or muscular. The therapist can use gentle hands-on techniques to realign joints or release soft tissue that may cause your sciatic pain.
An exercise program, designed appropriately for each trimester, would focus on realigning your posture and improving your body mechanics. Some discomfort-alleviating techniques can also be taught to a spouse, friend or companion who can help you.
These steps help most women experiencing pain during their pregnancy to significantly decrease pain in the neck, shoulder, low back and sciatica, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, edema (swelling), and hip, leg, and foot pain.
Another good preventive measure, after you give birth, is a follow-up session with your physical therapist. This may help you avoid unnecessary pain syndromes in the future.