Pregnancy is such a pain in the… back?! And it makes sense. During pregnancy, a woman’s body changes significantly—your hormones go crazy, you gain a few pounds (ok, maybe something closer to 25-35 pounds!), and your pelvis and ligaments have to stretch and adapt in preparation for birth. And this can all cause back pain during pregnancy.
In this article we’ll explore the following:
- Types of pregnancy back pain
- Causes of back pain during pregnancy
- When back pain during pregnancy typically begins
- Plus, natural remedies for back pain during pregnancy
Is Back Pain During Pregnancy Normal?
Between 50 and 80 percent of women experience some form of back pain during pregnancy, says Stephen P. Montgomery, MD.
It’s not rocket science when you think about it—your body undergoes some wild changes to grow another human, and that puts quite a strain on the muscles in your back.
What Causes Back Pain During Pregnancy?
Muscle strain is the No. 1 cause of back pain during pregnancy.
When your uterus grows, your weight shifts, causing you to bend forward from the center and lean back in the shoulders. This pregnancy posture causes stiffness, soreness, and pain for many women.
During pregnancy, a woman’s body produces a hormone called relaxin, a hormone that prepares your body for the passage of a baby by relaxing the ligaments in the joints of your pelvis. But, when things get too relaxed this causes aches and pain, particularly in the lower back. (source)
All women gain weight during pregnancy (and that’s a good thing!). Pregnancy can cause you to gain as much as a quarter of your body weight, adding stress to the back and other weight-bearing structures.
A pregnant body also carries more weight in the front than is customary. This can lead to muscular imbalance and fatigue. And when muscles are fatigued, they tend to slump, contributing to poor posture, which strains your spine and causes pain.
Weakened abdominal muscles
As the uterus grows, the abdominal muscles that surround the uterus stretch and ultimately weaken. These same muscles are a support system for your back (it’s all connected!).
One very common muscular strain that can occur because of this is called diastasis recti, a separation in the abdominal muscles that’s related to relaxed muscles, weight gain, and a growing baby. This separation in the muscles can lead to reduced core strength, poor posture, and lower back pain in pregnancy.
Women often slow down during pregnancy, and rightfully so—growing another human is hard work! But a more sedentary lifestyle can actually contribute to the aches and pains not only in the back, but the whole body. Similarly, too much movement and/or standing can also exacerbate pain and cause stress on the muscles and ligaments around the back and pelvis. (source)
Lifting heavy objects
The hormone relaxin softens up the ligaments that support all structures of the body. In this relaxed state, it’s much easier to pull a muscle, especially with improper or repetitive lifting. (source) Be sure to talk with your doctor or midwife if repetitive lifting is part of your daily routine. It’s important to know the proper mechanics of lifting and get specific personal recommendations on how to approach this.
When Does Back Pain During Pregnancy Typically Begin?
Studies show that lower back pain during pregnancy usually occurs between the fifth and seventh month of pregnancy. Study participants, on average, reported back pain around the 22nd week of pregnancy, though 20 percent of women in this same study reported back pain as early as the 16th week of pregnancy.
Women with pre-existing lower back problems are at higher risk for back pain, and their back pain often occurs earlier in pregnancy.
Unfortunately, women who fall into this category generally experience long-lasting and severe back pain during pregnancy. The good news? there are lots of way that women can nurture themselves to reduce the pain that they are experiencing. (More on that below!)
Is Back Pain a Sign of Early Pregnancy?
Although back pain normally starts later in pregnancy, as noted above, some women report back pain as an early sign of pregnancy.
When back pain occurs this early in pregnancy, it’s usually described as a dull ache in the lower back, rather than a sharp pain.
This type of back pain in pregnancy is largely due to hormonal fluctuations, though it can be a result of the embryo implanting in the uterus and/or ovulation. If the idea of pregnancy is stressful, this too could cause back pain for some mamas.
Types of Pregnancy Back Pain
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to back pain during pregnancy. Women may experience back pain in different parts of their back or pelvic region.
Take a look at the different ways back pain can manifest during pregnancy and why:
Lumbar, or lower back, pain is generally felt at or above the waist in the center of the back. It can be a dull or a sharp pain, and tends to increase with prolonged sitting or standing, or even repetitive lifting. Sometimes this pain radiates from the lower back all the way down the leg (and maybe even to the foot!). When this happen, it’s referred to as sciatica. Sciatica symptoms occur when the large sciatic nerve is irritated or compressed at or near its point of origin. The resulting pain can be sharp and usually affects just one side of your body.
Posterior pelvic pain
Also known as pelvic girdle pain, this is the most common complaint when it comes to back pain during pregnancy. This aching pain is primarily felt in back of pelvis, but can extend down into the buttocks and upper thighs. Pain that is felt in the pubic bone during pregnancy also falls into this category. It’s exacerbated by rolling in bed, climbing stairs, sitting and rising from a seated position, running, walking, lifting, twisting and bending forward…. um, pretty much everything! 😳
Upper Back Pain
This type of pain, experienced in the upper back or neck region, tends to manifest in the third trimester, when the postural changes are at their height due to the change in the center of gravity, weight gain and hormonally relaxed ligaments.
Natural Remedies for Back Pain During Pregnancy
Practice safe sleeping with pillow support
Since we’re asleep a third of our lives, we want to look at the way we’re sleeping first and foremost.
Pillows can be your best friend in helping to reduce back pain during pregnancy.
- Get yourself some support pillows to put between your bent knees (key!), under your abdomen, and behind your back. This will support your entire pelvic, back and abdominal area.
- And be sure to sleep on your side, not your back, while keeping one or both knees bent. (Check out this post on ways to optimize your sleep for safety and comfort.)
Maintain good standing posture
Easier said than done, but as your belly grows and your center of gravity shifts forward, good posture is so important. You may find yourself arching back to avoid falling forward, but this lean-back posture puts a strain on your lower back muscles.
Stand up tall and straight, hold your chest high, keep your shoulders back and relaxed, and don’t lock your knees.
(There are posture correctors you can use as well.)
Maintain good sitting posture
Good posture includes how you sit as well.
- Choose a chair that supports your back and place a small pillow in the lower curve of your back if you need extra support.
- Sit on an exercise or medicine ball (be sure it’s toxin-free!) to help your posture and strengthen your core.
- Distribute your weight evenly on both hips when sitting and avoid crossing your legs. If your feet don’t rest comfortably flat on the ground, you may want to use a small stool. If possible, avoid sitting in the same position for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Don’t lift heavy objects (even other kids!)
Why? Pregnant women are at higher risk of an injury while lifting due to changes in posture, balance, and an inability to hold things close to the body because of the growing belly. (source) The same hormones that allow a pregnant woman’s body to stretch and accommodate the growing baby, make mamas-to-be more prone to injury when lifting heavy objects.
To pick something off the floor:
- Bend at the knees and keep your back straight like you’re doing a squat.
- Avoid repetitive bending over at the waist.
- Or, better yet, ask someone else do any lifting for you.
Wear a supportive bra
Your breasts gain as much as 2-3 pounds during pregnancy!
That weight puts extra strain on your spine, causing aches and pains. Get a well-fitting bra, preferably a soft cup, with wide and comfortable straps.
Wear supportive shoes
Like everything else changing in your pregnant body, your feet go through some changes, too! (Along with swelling, your feet may also grow a whole shoe size during pregnancy!)
Your feet are the anchor for your whole body, including your spine, so sensible shoes play a role in helping you to maintain good posture and help absorb some of the pressure the extra weight adds to your stride.
Look for shoes that are easy to put on, have adequate support in the soles/arches, and have a little extra room in case your feet grow or swell.
Wear a maternity belt
Also known as a belly band, these stretchy bands of fabric wrap around your upper hips and swaddle the belly to provide gentle compression that helps relieve pressure on the hips and the ligaments of the uterus during pregnancy. Wearing a maternity band also reminds you to have good posture!
Though there have been several studies done to try to prove the effectiveness of wearing a maternity support belt to help reduce lower back pain of pregnancy, there isn’t much conclusive evidence to support their effectiveness. Still, many mamas swear by the purported benefits!
Get moderate exercise
Moderate exercise during pregnancy helps keep your muscles strong and increases flexibility to ease tension and stress in the spine.
Safe exercises for pregnancy include:
- gentle yoga
- stationary cycling
Plus, studies suggest exercise makes labor and delivery easier, lowers your chances of having gestational diabetes, keeps your bowels regular, gives you more energy, boosts mood, and even raises baby’s IQ, just to name a few!
Try gentle stretches
According to the Spine Correction Center, stretching not only relieves back pain during pregnancy, it also improves flexibility and balance as your body changes and your center of gravity shifts. Try these easy exercises.
Use a warm compress
If you’re experiencing consistent pain a warm compress opens blood vessels to carry a fresh supply of oxygen to areas in need, increases your range of motion, and decreases muscle spasms.
To make a warm compress:
- Fill a bowl with warm water. Don’t use water that exceeds 120°F—it should not be scalding.
- Put a clean washcloth in the bowl, soaking it completely.
- Wring out the washcloth. It should be damp, not wet.
- Apply the compress to sore areas for 20 minutes at a time.
Use ice packs
If your experiencing pain that gets worse with activity, inflammation is likely the culprit, and ice is a more effective remedy for inflammation. (source)
To make an ice pack:
- Wrap ice cubes in a pillowcase or thin towel.
- Apply ice to sore areas for 20 minutes, then remove for 40 minutes. Repeat as necessary. (Do not apply ice directly to a pregnant belly.)
Apply a pregnancy-safe ointment
Arnica is an effective homeopathic remedy for soreness, joint pain, swelling, and muscle aches.
For maximum relief:
- Apply a pregnancy-safe arnica massage oil, like this one, directly to affected areas (do not apply to broken skin!) once or twice per day. Gently massage the oil into skin.
- Apply the massage oil to a warm compress. (Follow the instructions above, adding the massage oil to the cloth once you wring it out.)
There are several studies that show acupuncture if a safe and acceptable form of pain treatment for symptoms such as back pain during pregnancy. Acupuncture can help relax the muscles of the back and change the nervous system’s perception of pain. Visit the acupuncturist once or twice a week, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
Try pregnancy-safe chiropractic care
During chiropractic appointments, misaligned joints are adjusted to maintain a healthy spinal column. When this balance in your spine and pelvis are disrupted (very common in pregnancy!), it can place stress on and even compress the nerves, increasing back pain in pregnancy.
Find a local pregnant-friendly chiropractor trained in the Webster-technique through this database.
Get a prenatal massage
A prenatal massage is similar to a full body massage that you experience at the spa, but the masseuse makes a few modifications to ensure the safety (and comfort) of mama and baby. It is a safe, medication-free way to find relief for back pain during pregnancy, plus has many other benefits including fewer headaches, better sleep quality, and less swelling. Ask your doctor or midwife if you’re a good candidate for prenatal massage.
Can Back Pain Be a Sign of Labor?
Are you ready to meet your little baby? In early labor you may feel persistent lower back pain, but it’s important to note that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Some mamas experience back pain, and it isn’t a sign of labor, and some mamas won’t feel any back pain, despite being in early labor.
If baby is in a sunny-side up (posterior) fetal position, mama is more likely to feel even more pressure on her back during labor because the hardest part of baby’s head is pressing against mama’s spine (OUCH!). This can cause some women to have full-on back labor during the second stage of birth.
Luckily, these types of back pain, though hard to go through in labor, are self-limiting and will resolve quickly once baby is born!
Back Pain During Pregnancy is No Fun!
Back pain during pregnancy can add stress to your daily routine and sometimes feel really limiting. Pregnancy is a time to take care of yourself and ask for help when you need it. Overdoing it (AKA: multi-tasking) is something most women are really good at, but it can take a toll on the body. Take care of yourself, mama! 💪
How About You?
Did you experience back pain during pregnancy? What helped relieve the pain?