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Back Pain During Pregnancy: Helpful Tips

Finding help for your discomfort or back pain during pregnancy

A seated pregnant woman talks with a Scripps Health prenatal care professional in a clinical setting.

If you’re pregnant, back pain may be making your life miserable. Rather than dismissing the aches and pain as simply part of your pregnancy, you should consult with your doctor or find a physical therapist who can determine the cause of your pain and develop a therapy plan.

Many pregnant women can ease their pain through postural awareness and exercises that relieve back strain.

The hormonal changes that occur in pregnancy cause ligament laxity (a loosening of the ligaments), especially where the pelvis and spine connect. As the weight of the baby increases, so does the pressure on your spine and pelvic areas.

“Ligament laxity can create tension in the low back and hyper-mobility (excess mobility), which can lead to joint instability in the back, pelvis and legs," explains Karen Reitz, a physical therapist at the Shiley Sports and Fitness Center. The lumbar curve in your back can also increase and cause poor posture.

Correcting poor posture, along with increasing range of motion, flexibility and muscle strength, is the focus of Reitz’s treatment program.

“We work on posture to stabilize and strengthen the trunk and lower extremities,” she says.

First, Reitz tries to find positions for the woman that don’t stress the ligaments. Next, she looks at body mechanics.

“I look at how she’s sitting and her body mechanics while doing activities — for example, that she’s using both legs when picking something up so she’s keeping her center of gravity,” Reitz says.

Reitz adds that wearing heels puts a lot of pressure on the spine. She also recommends that pregnant women lie on their side with a pillow in between their knees to take pressure off the spine.

The right exercise to help your back

For exercise, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recommends a complete exercise program that includes flexibility, low-impact aerobics, muscle strengthening, endurance and relaxation exercises.

Key muscle groups targeted during prenatal exercise include the postural muscles (along the spine and between the shoulder blades); the abdominal muscles and illopsoas (the deep muscle in front of the pelvis and spine); and the pelvic floor muscles (the layer of muscles deep within the pelvis that is a base of support for the pelvic organs).

Reitz suggests aerobic activities such as walking, swimming and stationary biking along with light weight lifting with the arms and legs.

“You shouldn’t do any lifting that stresses the abdominal muscles,” she notes.

Reitz adds that she often teaches massage to a spouse or significant other to help with soft-tissue tension that can result from pregnancy.

If back pain continues to be a problem after correcting your posture and following a recommended exercise program, your doctor or physical therapist may advise that you wear an orthotic support for your low back and abdomen. This can help correct faulty alignment and relieve the strain on the muscles that are stretched by the increasing size of the uterus during pregnancy.

You can also purchase a maternity girdle, back brace, special elastic sling or abdominal binder.

Helpful tips

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests the following tips to ease back pain during pregnancy:

  • Wear low-heeled (but not flat) shoes with good arch support.
  • Ask for help when living heavy objects.
  • If your bed is too soft, have someone help you place a board between the mattress and box spring.
  • Don’t bend over from the waist to pick things up — squat down, bend your knees and keep your back straight.
  • Sit in chairs with good back support or use a small pillow behind the low part of your back.
  • Try to sleep on your side with one or two pillows between your legs for support.
  • Apply heat or cold to the painful area, or massage it.