Having back pain during pregnancy can add unnecessary strain to an exciting time in a woman's life. Being uncomfortable during pregnancy is a common complaint due to rapid weight gain and increased pressure on internal organs as that baby grows. It's all an amazing experience as that little human grows inside, but does back pain need to be part of it? The short answer is not necessarily.
Is back pain during pregnancy normal?
Unfortunately, pregnancy related back pain is a very common occurrence (up to 70% in some reports). Some of the major contributors to back pain are preventable (posture, strength, and activity level) while others are unavoidable due to the nature of pregnancy (ligament stretching and weight distribution). However, with some insight you can try to minimize the effects and maximize comfort.
Back pain from changes in your weight distribution and posture.
Back pain is more common in the later stages of pregnancy (weeks 20+) due to an increasing amount of weight around the lower abdomen, causing the low back to arch more than usual. To maintain balance the upper back will most likely slouch further forward turning the spine into an exaggerated "S" shape. To make matters worse the abdominal muscles that help you maintain good posture are gradually being stretched, making it harder for them to work. Our spines have an optimal posture that they work best in and the strain of pregnancy makes this difficult to maintain. This is why maintaining the best possible posture and muscle strength throughout pregnancy can be a game changer for back pain.
Back pain from changes in your body's natural tissue flexibility.
A hormone called relaxin is released throughout pregnancy to prepare the body for labor by making the joints of the pelvis more lax. Unfortunately, it also promotes laxity throughout the body. One of the most common areas this can cause pain is at the sacroiliac (SI) joints. These joints are located right under those dimples in your low back and are meant to provide stability to the pelvis. They can become very painful when there is too much movement in them during pregnancy! To minimize this laxity, good muscle strength can provide better joint stability.
Back pain from increasing pressure in the lower body.
With a growing baby and swelling (a common side effect of pregnancy), a lot of pressure is put on your ribs, vital organs, pelvis and low back. Neural tissue are sensitive to these changes and are most prone aggravation in the low back, causing symptoms like sciatica. Nerve pains tend to be sharp and can make it hard to sit or change positions comfortably. Making healthy lifestyle choices related to exercise, diet and resting positions can decrease the onset (or severity) of these types of symptoms.
How to get some relief during pregnancy.
1. Prevention. If you aren't pregnant yet (just found out your are), set yourself up for success! Having good core strength and tolerance for daily exercise can make a huge difference in how you manage pregnancy.
2. Exercise. When you're in pain, exercise may sound like the last thing you want to do. However, promoting muscle use and circulation is good, just choose movements that don't aggravate your pain. Regular exercise also helps with energy levels, weight management and swelling (bonus if you're eating eat well too!) to minimize stress on the back. Talk to your doctor and then try things like walking, swimming, biking, or light cardio.
3. Stretch. With back pain comes muscles soreness and tightness. Be nice to those muscles and try some gentle stretching. Focus on problem areas like the low back, hips and butt with simple yoga poses if you feel comfortable. (Note: Due to the relaxin hormone make sure your stretches are gentle to prevent hyper-laxity.)
4. Ergonomics. Maintain good posture throughout the day (it won't be perfect but do your best) to decrease strain on the spine. To be particularly nice to your SI joints, try to keep even weight through your feet throughout the day. This means no heeled shoes or leaning to one side since it throws your pelvis off balance. If you have to spend a lot time at work, set up your desk well and think about changing positions frequently with a standing desk. Lastly, try to avoid heavy lifting if possible (or ask for help) to prevent unnecessary back strain!
5. Tools. There are a lot of great tools out there for back pain during pregnancy. One of the favorites is simple back support, varying from control top pants to a more formal brace. Another great option is an SI belt to provide stability to the pelvis with daily activities to decrease joint movement and pain. Other great options include a pregnancy pillow to support you when lying down or massage tools to address sore areas.
6. Heat and Ice. Try alternating between an ice pack and warm bath to promote relaxation and pain relief. Try 10-20 minutes of each, ending with whichever one gives you more relief. Warm baths are safe if they are under 100 degrees Fahrenheit and don't leave you feeling overheated, so light a candle and give it a try!
7. Professional help. Someone that understands the body and pregnancy can be of great assistance, especially if you're nervous about what you are "allowed" to do. You can find someone to help guide you through an exercise program, provide gentle massage, or use other tools like electrical stimulation or kinesiotape. This may involve a personal trainer, physical or massage therapist or chiropractor.
Back pain during pregnancy can make some days unbearable. With the right awareness and attention to your body you can maximize your comfort during the process of becoming a mom! The good news is that if you take care of yourself that back pain should subside relatively quickly after you give birth.