No Pain, No Gain? Managing Back Problems during Pregnancy

Why does back pain rank so high among the list of pregnancy ailments? Find out how you can prevent and manage this common problem.

Although some women claim they’ve never felt better than when they were pregnant, it’s only natural for pregnant women to experience discomfort sometimes. Hormones, the weight of the fetus, and the exertion of carrying on with normal day-to-day activities throughout pregnancy can all put a tremendous strain on the body.

Why Some Pregnant Women Experience Back Pain

The growing uterus places additional stress on the muscles and ligaments in the lower back. That’s why back pain—or sciatica—is one of the most common complaints during pregnancy. Even though the complex structure of the back allows us to do all the bending, twisting, and turning we need to, experts warn that it also leaves us prone to back problems.

Many pregnant women develop a sharp pain up and down their backs, legs, and buttocks. This is caused by the baby’s head pressing on the pelvis, resulting in added pressure on sciatic nerves that causes the legs to feel weak and numb. This pressure can make sitting painful in later stages of pregnancy.

With an increasing number of women in their thirties and forties having babies, the likelihood of existing wear and tear on the spine often increases the risk of back pain during pregnancy. Sitting at a desk all day at work or doing physically demanding tasks on the job can worsen the problem, too.

Fatigue can also add to the burden on your back. It’s easy to put stress on already tired muscles and joints, especially if a mom-to-be doesn’t get the proper rest. Overworked muscles don’t always respond they way they should, increasing susceptibility to back pain and injury.

How You Can Alleviate Back Pain

Back pain ranks high on a list of ailments that doctors say patients bring on themselves—but the good news is, patients can do something about it themselves, too. Exercising to strengthen the back is probably one of the best ways to prevent a backache.

Get in Shape
Andrew Eaton, a certified fitness trainer in the Chicago area, explains, “Strengthening the muscles of the legs, upper back, shoulders, and arms not only helps to keep an expectant mom in shape, it also prepares her for the daily task of caring for her baby. Body weight exercises like partial squats and lunges are particularly good at keeping the legs strong and can be done at home.”

Because the abdominal muscles supporting the spine bear the pressure of the fetus, Eaton stresses that staying fit and pain-free during pregnancy starts long before the baby arrives. “A good workout should include exercises that target the mid and upper back muscles, as well as the biceps,” he says. “Using proper posture is essential, too, especially since the back muscles help support the weight of the baby in the front of your body. Whether you walk, stand, or sit, good posture keeps the spine aligned and minimizes stress on your back.”

Build Your Strength
Eaton also maintains, “Strength training plays an important role in prenatal conditioning because it helps stretch the muscles of the calves and lower back as the developing fetus changes Mom’s center of gravity.”

A Yale Research Study published in May 2005 reports that between 45 and 75 percent of all women experience back pain during pregnancy—in most cases due to hormonal changes that make their ligaments looser. Because of the added stress placed on muscles in the lower back during pregnancy, the more fit you are, the better you tend to feel.

“Because back problems often develop from weakened muscles that can’t handle the strain of everyday bending and stretching, it’s important to avoid awkward and extreme postures,” advises Christina Christie, a physical therapist and certified childbirth educator at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. “It helps not to let yourself be caught off-guard.”

Maintain an Exercise Program
Dr. Wayne L. Westcott, PhD, a fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, reports that back strengthening exercises can help ease back pain, as well as prevent future episodes from recurring. So, it’s essential that expectant moms get regular exercise while they are pregnant. Both swimming and walking are good, safe back-strengthening exercises for a pregnant woman. Any weight-bearing exercise that requires you to use your own body as a force against gravity helps tighten the muscles of your back and abdomen, keeping them healthier.

“Water aerobics is another great way to exercise during pregnancy, says Christie, who teaches a water aerobics class for expectant moms. She explains, “Working out in water puts minimal strain on the joints and back. Twenty to thirty minutes of low-impact aerobics, two to three times a week can help you maintain strength and flexibility.”

Words of Caution

Christie cautions women exercising during pregnancy: “If a patient already has a history of back problems, pregnancy may exacerbate the condition.” For women who suffer chronic back problems either during or following pregnancy, she suggests asking your doctor about physical therapy to help prevent future back problems.

Christie also recommends talking to your doctor if back pain worsens or persists for more than two weeks, as there could be another underlying cause.

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