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Back Pain During Pregnancy

When it comes to inevitable pains, back pain during pregnancy is at the top of the list. There’s almost no way to avoid it — most women experience pregnancy-related back pain. There are, however, many ways to reduce the amount of back pain you’re experiencing.

The type and severity of your back pain should be noted. If it’s the normal back pain that tends to accompany pregnancy, then you probably should hold off on contacting your doctor. But if the pain is severe and none of the at-home treatment methods you’re trying are working, then you should definitely contact your doctor immediately. If the pain is like frequent cramping with pelvic pressure, this could be a sign of preterm labor. If your back pain is coupled with another problem, such as vaginal bleeding or discharge, this may be an indication that something is very wrong. If you’re just not sure about your back pain and want advice, contact your doctor and ask for an appointment.

Causes of Back Pain

There can be many causes for mild back pain during pregnancy, but the most common causes are:

  • The baby’s growth
  • Learning to walk differently to adapt to pregnancy
  • Changing hormone levels

Surprisingly, studies have found no link between maternal weight gain and back pain during pregnancy. Pregnancy back pain seems to be caused more by posture. In other words, how the weight is carried is more important than the weight itself. To avoid putting unnecessary strain on your back while you are pregnant, try to avoid excessive twisting while lifting—or better yet, try to avoid doing too much heavy lifting of any kind. Also try not to climb stairs any more often than you absolutely have to, and try to avoid bending to touch the ground without bending at the knee.

Severe back pain or pelvic pain, on the other hand, should not be ignored because it may be caused by:

  • Preterm labor
  • Threatened Miscarriage
  • Infection
  • Sciatic Nerve Pain (This is typically a pain in the buttocks on one side that can shoot down the back of the leg, and can be severe at times)
  • Symphysis Pubis Separation (also known as pelvic girdle pain), a condition in which the joint (located in the front, low and center, above the groin area) that unites two of the larger pelvic bones begins to function improperly, causing the bones of the pelvis to become misaligned. This causes pain when getting out of bed, turning side to side in bed, or getting out of a car.

Treating Back Pain

There are many different ways to relieve back pain, but the truth is that it may get worse as the pregnancy progresses. Remedies that have been known to help include:

  • Back massages
  • Body massages (head to toe)
  • Lying down and resting
  • Improving posture (see below)
  • Specific Exercises
  • Heating pads, warm baths, or hot showers
  • Cold packs — applied for short periods of time
  • Better shoes
  • Maternity Support Belts or Cradles
  • Pain medication such as Tylenol

These are just suggestions, and your doctor can help you relieve your back pain more effectively. If you take care of yourself, your body will repay you in its own way, so keep your head up — it’s only for about 40 weeks.

Pregnancy Posture

The best thing you can do for back pain during pregnancy is to improve your posture. Over time, the growth of the baby inside you causes your center of gravity to shift forward. Your natural reaction to this change is to compensate by leaning backward. This puts strain on your lower back muscles. Whenever possible, you should try to be aware of your posture when you’re walking. Keep your shoulders back and your chest up and out. Keep your shoulders and knees relaxed.

Also keep your posture in mind when standing or sitting. If you need to stand for prolonged periods (another thing to avoid, if possible), keep your stance fairly wide, and rest one foot on a stool from time to time if you can. If you’re sitting for more than a few minutes, try to choose a chair that offers back support, and place a pillow behind your back if you can find one. If you can put your feet up on something, so much the better.

Sleep Well—and Wisely

It can be difficult to alter sleeping habits that you have developed over the course of a lifetime, but the effort can pay off in terms of pain relief. Sleep on your side rather than on your back, with your knees bent. If possible, place a pillow between your knees, behind your back, and under your abdomen. Many pregnant women like using a “body pillow,” a very long pillow, sometimes curved, that can be adjusted many ways. Husbands also like that these body pillows act as “thermal insulators,” shielding them somewhat from the extra body heat generated by pregnant women.

Low Back Exercises

Specific exercises may help alleviate low back pain by strengthening the back muscles, providing extra support for the spine. Many pregnancy books do a good job showing how to perform these exercises. Squatting is a good exercise, but needs to be done properly, with good form. The “pelvic tilt” is another potentially helpful exercise for low back pain during pregnancy.

Pregnancy Shoes

Proper footwear is important if you’re trying to reduce back pain during pregnancy. Wear shoes with low heels, and avoid flats and high heels. Your shoes should always provide good arch support (this is good advice even if you’re not pregnant).

Maternity Support Belts and Cradle Systems

There are numerous products on the market that claim to be the cure for pregnancy low back pain and/or sciatic pain. It is a good idea to shop around for the right one. The best ones are usually elastic with Velcro and are wider in the back than the front. They are designed to be worn under clothing, so look for fabrics that are not rough or scratchy, and material that is washable. Some are quite sophisticated, going over the shoulders and upper back as well. These help re-distribute the weight of the heavy pregnant belly. Some women do get miraculous relief from these.

Be Careful!

Avoid the temptation to fall for “miracle cures.” There are many products on the market that claim to alleviate back pain during pregnancy, but not all of them are effective. Another thing to keep in mind is that you before you take any medication while you’re pregnant — even Tylenol — you should check with your doctor first. For example, over-the-counter medicines such as Advil and Motrin may not be good for your baby.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Back Pain During Pregnancy

  • Do you think I would benefit from seeing a chiropractor?
  • Is it safe to take over-the-counter pain medication while pregnant? How much can I take, and how often?
  • Can you prescribe something for the pain?
  • Will my back pain get worse as my pregnancy progresses?
  • Is back pain during pregnancy a sign that something is wrong? What should I look out for?
  • Will my pain persist after I have had my baby?

Medical References:

    Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy/art-20046080 Ostgaard HC, Andersson GB, Karlsson K (May 1991). "Prevalence of back pain in pregnancy". Spine 16 (5): 549–52. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symptoms_and_discomforts_of_pregnancy
[Page updated November 2014]