By Gina Roberts-Grey
Jessica Rosenberg, a mother of two from Santa Clara, CA, suffered from extreme back pain when she was pregnant with her first child. “One morning when I was about seven months pregnant, I bent forward to pick up a shirt and couldn’t straighten up,” Rosenberg says. Her pain was so severe that she had to crawl to the phone to call for help. “I spent the next three days on the couch while my back healed enough to move around again.”
Rosenberg’s experience isn’t uncommon. The prevalence of pain related to pregnancy varies, but experts say a staggering 50 to 70 percent of all pregnant women suffer from some form of pregnancy-induced back pain.
Not Just a Backache
Back pain during pregnancy is caused by an exaggerated curvature of the lower back, as the weight of your growing belly and baby pulls your body forward. Some women begin to experience lower-back pain before ever seeing a baby bump. But most find the last months and weeks of pregnancy are the most painful.
Spiking hormones also soften pelvic ligaments, allowing your joints to become looser in preparation for delivery. Diane Laurin, M.D., chair of obstetrics at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, MD, says that during pregnancy, “Women who are overweight or had back pain prior to pregnancy are most at risk for back pain.”
And your back isn’t the only spot that might hurt. Laurin says, “As the pregnancy progresses, hip and knee joints loosen and can suffer strain.” Also, the round ligaments on either side of the uterus are forced to stretch as your abdomen grows. “This stretching can lead to round ligament pain, which usually occurs with movement or when standing,” Laurin continues.
Pregnancy-related pain strikes in less obvious spots, too, including your wrists. “Carpal tunnel syndrome is very common during the last trimester,” says Benito Alvarez, M.D., co-director of general obstetrics and gynecology at The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, “especially in women who retain a lot of fluid.” The extra water compresses the nerves in your wrists, causing numbness, tingling, and sometimes pain. “The symptoms are often worse at night,” Alvarez says.
Send Pain Packing
The quickest, easiest path to less pain is lying on your side, with your knees bent and a pillow resting between them. But even though experts say rest is the best way to soothe an aching back and joints, it’s not the only way.
Alternating cold and warm compresses on your back, knees, or hips can also safely reduce soreness. “Acetaminophen is also OK for moms-to-be,” Laurin says, “and so are chiropractic adjustments, as long as the chiropractor avoids abdominal manipulations and doesn’t overextend joints.”
Joe Sabino, a licensed massage therapist certified in pregnancy massage at Coral Springs Medical Center in Coral Springs, FL, says, “Massage is great at reducing lower back and joint pain.” To work out kinks, Sabino says to sit upright and lay your head on a pillow on the table. Rest your hands on your lap or on the table, depending on what is most comfortable. Ask your partner to press the thumbs in small, gentle circles starting at your sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of your back, working up and out across your lower back for about five minutes.
Rosenberg turned to yoga and stretching exercises to relieve her back pain, options Martina March, M.P.T., chief physical therapist and vice president of Bebé PT in Los Angeles, says are good—as long as you don’t push yourself too far. “Stretching your calves and hamstrings eases lower back and knee pain and child’s pose strengthens hip muscles.” (See “Yoga For Relief” to learn these easy yoga positions.) March says if these at-home remedies don’t work, a physical therapist can work with you to safely relieve pressure on nerves in your back. For those wrists, wearing a soft splint does the trick. “And watch your salt intake to cut down on swelling,” Laurin says.
Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer who lives with her family in upstate New York. Her articles have also appeared in Arthritis Today, Glamour, and Self.