How to Manage Discomfort During Pregnancy

Ease your aching back and sore muscles during pregnancy with these pain-reducing tips

Illustration by Paul Dotey

Illustration by Paul Dotey


Laurie Plouffe fully expected some back pain during her pregnancy. The Edmonton-based physical therapist spends considerable time getting up and down while she assists her clients, so she had already experienced some lower back and anterior pelvis pain before, which worsened during pregnancy. “I would have called it excruciating,” says Plouffe, “but I now save that word for childbirth. Still, it was pretty darn uncomfortable.”

Pressure and Posture
Prenatal back issues aren’t necessarily because of pre-existing back problems. In many cases, pain arises due to posture changes. Karen Nordahl, MD, who practises family medicine and obstetrics at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver and is co-author of the self-published book Fit to Deliver, says moms-to-be can experience a shift in their centre of gravity as they gain weight, putting more pressure on the back. “A lot happens to a pregnant woman’s body in nine months,” says Dr. Nordahl. “The parts of the body do not work in isolation, so a change in one may cause problems in another, hence the back pain.”

Relieving Pain During Pregnancy
During pregnancy your body releases relaxin, a hormone that makes muscles, joints and ligaments in the pelvic area more flexible to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. Looser joints also means the pelvis and lower back can become unstable (more mobile). The lower back being pulled forward by the weight of the fetus, combined with the effects of relaxin, can cause irritation of the joints and potentially spark inflammation of the lower back and sciatic nerve.

Read more: 5 Easy Ways to De-Stress During Pregnancy

Here’s the good news: you don’t have to accept back pain as something that’s just part of pregnancy, says Samantha Montpetit-Huynh, a pre- and postnatal exercise specialist in Toronto. Below are some expert suggestions on how to ease your discomfort.

  • Stretch out. Regular stretching will help to reduce tension. Concentrate on stretches not just for your back but the surrounding muscle groups too. “If you have tight glutes, hips and hamstrings, they tend to pull on the low back,” notes Montpetit-Huynh. She also recommends strengthening your abdominal muscles since they support the back. Try prenatal yoga or pilates, or work with a personal trainer who specializes in workouts for pregnant women. Be sure to get clearance from your doctor before proceeding with any workout regimen.
  • Adjust your posture. Avoid positions that will cause your pelvis to twist, Plouffe suggests. During her pregnancy, Plouffe had a habit of crossing her legs while sitting at her desk. But doing so pulled on her pelvis, which strained the back. Plouffe now crosses her ankles instead. “This change made a huge difference,” she says.
  • Embrace the Heat. Applying a hot water bottle or heating pad or taking a lukewarm bath can help to relieve tension in the back, says Dr. Nordahl.
  • Get Comfortable. Invest in quality walking shoes that offer good arch support. You can also try a body-style pillow for sleeping, says Dr. Nordahl.
  •  Seek Professional Help. Physiotherapists are well-versed in acupuncture and Rost therapy, a technique that helps patients overcome pelvic pain and related symptoms. Dr. Nordahl says Rost therapy should be “a basic part of an exercise program (i.e., not the whole program) and it should be done in conjunction with other exercises,” to help relieve back pain and improve your mobility. Massage therapy may also help you relax. Whichever therapy you choose, find a professional who has additional education in women’s or prenatal health, says Dr. Nordahl.

Is It Back Labour?
Back labour occurs when the baby is positioned head-down in the birth canal but facing up, spine-to-spine with the mother rather than spine-to-abdomen. “If the baby is facing the wrong way, the pressure of the head against the tailbone and lower back can cause back pain,” explains Plouffe. You can distinguish between simple back pain and back labour by the amount of pain, says Dr. Nordahl. “With back labour it can be constant or intermittent, but the main thing is that it will get more intense.” Back labour, she adds, “has an endpoint—a baby’s birth—while back pain does not.”

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