Perhaps the most enduring image of pregnancy is the one of the woman waddling around with her hand on her lower back in an attempt to ease her back pain. The good news is that in most cases there is a simple cause and multiple ways to find relief from backaches during pregnancy.
How Common Is It?
Backaches during pregnancy are very common. In fact, it's extremely difficult to find a woman who hasn’t had a backache during pregnancy than to find one who has. The numbers vary by source, but between 50 and 75 percent of women experience backaches during their pregnancy.
The majority of women experience backaches in the later stages of pregnancy, when the growing baby and their own increasing weight puts extra strain on their bodies. The problem is rarely one that is serious and it will usually resolve itself after the baby is born.
There are two main types of backaches in pregnancy: lower lumbar pain and posterior pelvic pain. Lower lumbar pain is common, even in people who are not pregnant, and those who experienced back pain prior to becoming pregnant most likely experienced lower lumbar pain. It occurs around the level of the waist and can radiate pain to the legs. It is often worse at the end of the day, instead of earlier.
Posterior pelvic pain is even more common in pregnancy than lower lumbar pain. It is characterized by pain that occurs lower than lumbar pain and can radiate to the hips, buttocks and legs. This type of pain can occur at any time during the day.
Back pain happens when the complex group of muscles and joints in the back become strained or injured in some way. There can be multiple causes of backaches during pregnancy, and a woman may have more than one of them working against her. They include:
- Hormone changes: The hormone changes associated with pregnancy cause the joints in the woman's body to loosen to accommodate the growing baby as well as facilitate birth. The loosening of these joints in the posterior pelvis can lead to pain.
- Weight gain: The extra weight associated with pregnancy puts extra strain on a woman's muscles and joints, which can cause pain, especially at the end of the day.
- Center of gravity shift: As the mom-to-be's belly grows, her center of gravity will shift in order to keep her balanced, causing strain on her lower back.
- Body positioning: Poor posture, standing or bending for an extended period of time can trigger or aggravate muscles in the back that are already strained.
- Stress: Stress is like water, it will find any weak spots in the body to attack and during stressful times in the pregnancy that can be the lower back.
Some people mistake the back pain associated with pregnancy as sciatica, especially since the back pain can be so low and radiate to the hips and legs. But sciatica, a condition in which a bulging disk puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, is a relatively rare occurrence in pregnancy. If a woman thinks she has sciatica, she should discuss it with her doctor in order to have it treated.
Treating Back Pain
Treating back pain can be relatively simple and because the pain is usually directly related to the pregnancy, it will often resolve itself after birth. Some of the things a woman can do to relieve her back pain include:
- Ice: Ice is effective at reducing pain and inflammation in muscles and joints, and unlike medications, there are no side effects, as long as the ice isn't left on too long.
- Heat: Heat helps relax tense or strained muscles. The mom-to-be needs to be careful not to overheat however, because this can be dangerous to her baby.
- Support devices: Maternity belts can help take some of the strain off the back, especially in the second and third trimester, by helping to disperse the extra weight over the hips. They are available in a variety of styles
- Sleeping positions: Experts recommend a pregnant woman sleep on her left side to avoid putting pressure on a major blood vessel. There are a number of pillows and sleep positioners that can help a woman sleep comfortably and ease some of the strain on her back.
- Anti-inflammatory medications: Any medication taken during pregnancy should be discussed with the doctor first, because everything will cross the placenta and have an effect on the baby. Over-the-counter NSAIDs are not generally recommended during pregnancy, but there may be other options available through a doctor.
- Chiropractic treatment: Chiropractic treatment can help relieve pain and pressure in the joints and is safe as long as it is done by a qualified chiropractor. Be sure the chiropractor is familiar with treating pregnant women.
- Massage: Prenatal massage can go a long way toward relieving back pain. Be sure that the massage therapist is has special training in working with pregnant women and that your physician has approved of these massages. Many massage therapists will not work on a woman in the first trimester for fear of causing miscarriage.
Preventing Back Pain
Back pain in pregnancy is one thing that it's often easier to prevent than it is to treat. There are a number of things that a pregnant woman can do to help prevent back pain.
- Exercise will help strengthen muscles, thereby reducing the strain of the baby. Just be sure to discuss any exercise plan with the doctor before beginning.
- Use proper body mechanics when lifting. Lift with the legs and not the back, and if possible, have someone else do the lifting.
- Wear supportive shoes. Save the platform heels for the post-baby party.
- Avoid back sleeping. Laying on the left side will not only reduce back strain but it is better for mom and baby's circulation.
- Get plenty of rest. Elevating feet will help with back strain as well as swelling in the lower body.
- Use a maternity support.
When to Call The Doctor
Back pain is usually nothing to worry about, but it can be in certain situations. Some women experience back labor, meaning that their back pain could be a sign of labor and not just the burden of pregnancy. Other situations in which back pain might require a call to the doctor include:
- Severe back pain
- Abrupt onset
- Rhythmic pains
- Loss of feeling or weakness in lower extremities
It's always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to pregnancy, so if a woman feels that her back pain just isn't right, then it's better to call the doctor instead of toughing it out.
Backaches during pregnancy can be bothersome, but the good news is that they are temporary and the reward at the end makes all the pain worth it.