Back Pain and Pregnancy
Learn how you can alleviate back pain associated with pregnancy
Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
For many women, low back pain can be added to the list of not-so-welcome changes their bodies go through while pregnant. More than half will experience back pain, typically after the sixth month of pregnancy, with the pain lasting up to six months after birth. Strengthening and stretching exercises, however, can provide relief.
WHERE DOES IT HURT?
The two most common sites for discomfort are in the lumbar (low back) and posterior pelvic (toward the pubic bone) areas. Posterior pelvic pain can often be deeply rooted, extending down the thigh, and is four times more common among pregnant women than lumbar pain.
Given the changes a pregnant woman experiences, it’s no wonder that her back aches. After 12 weeks of pregnancy, the expanding uterus is stretching the abdominal muscles and changing the body’s center of gravity. These weakened ab muscles don’t support the back as well. “We also lose the ability to maintain a neutral posture, so as we’re shifting our posture, our center of gravity is shifting and we’re increasing the postural strain on the body,” explains Jessica Matthews, MS, RYT,Continuing Education Coordinator/American Council on Exercise and a Certified Personal Trainer. Add pregnancy hormones to the mix, which lead to looser ligaments and joint laxity, weakening the spine’s ability to provide support when sitting, standing, walking and engaging in other daily activities.
WHAT CAN I DO?
Stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as paying attention to posture and lifting and bending techniques, can address back pain and/or the threat of an aching back. Stretching exercises should focus on hip flexors, back, shoulders and neck, which are all involved in proper posture and neutral alignment. Strengthening exercises should focus on the abdominals, glutes, back, hips, pelvis and the scapula retractors (the muscles that pull the shoulders back) to allow the body to support proper alignment.
Cardio exercise is also important, with at least five days a week, 30 minutes a day, being the recommendation. If exercising for 30 minutes straight is too challenging for you, you can break up the 30 minutes into 10-minute bouts and still get a welcome blast of heart-pumping, mood-lifting endorphins.
WHICH EXERCISES WORK BEST?
Water exercise and prenatal yoga can be extremely helpful in relieving back pain. Research has shown that women who participate in water exercise classes tend to experience reduced symptoms of back pain during late pregnancy and miss fewer days at work compared to those who did not participate in water exercise. “The buoyancy of the water supports the individual’s body weight, relieving pressure on the joints,” explains Matthews.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends the following exercises to stretch and strengthen your body for a healthy back: diagonal curl, forward bend, back press, upper body bends, backward stretch, rocking back arch, leg lift crawl, and trunk twist. Diagrams and explanations of all these exercises can be viewed here.
Matthews also recommends Kegel exercises, to activate and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, and the Bird Dog, to strengthen the low back and abs. With Kegels, don’t squeeze your butt, warns Matthews – imagine that you’ve got a full bladder and that you’re trying to hold back the flow of urine. Hold the squeeze for 10 seconds and release, repeat 10-20 times. For Bird Dog, get on your hand and knees into a table-like position and extend the right arm in front of you while extending your left leg behind. Hold from three to five seconds (up to eight seconds max) doing five reps per side. Work up to 10 repetitions per side. Make sure the shoulders are even with the hips, which should be aligned and parallel to the ground.
Non-exercisers, as well as those with high-risk or other problem pregnancies, should consult with a physician before trying any of these stretching and strengthening routines. If back pain is severe or lasts longer than two weeks, talk to your healthcare provider.