Almost every pregnant woman experiences some degree of muscular discomfort during pregnancy due to all the changes her body undergoes. The most common ailment is lower back pain, closely followed by pelvic, hip and knee complaints. However, Nigel Pitchford, chairman of the Osteopathic Association of South Africa and an osteopath in private practice in Durban, explains that any joint can be affected.
Imagine a glass of water tipping over and you’ll get some sense of how your growing belly changes your centre of gravity – as your baby grows, your pelvis shifts into a forward tilt.
The result, says Nigel, is that your lower back is drawn into a deeper arch and your upper back becomes increasingly rounded into a forward bend. This makes your spinal muscles shorten and tighten, which causes them to fatigue and cramp.
Then, with the shift of gravity forwards, your weight-bearing structures, such as your hips, knees, feet and ankles, are put under greater pressure and become vulnerable to micro trauma and swelling.
Additionally, the secretion of the hormone relaxin, which allows increased stretch in your connective tissue, particularly your ligaments, can lead to hypermobility in some joints, especially in your pelvis. Although expansion of the pelvis is necessary to accommodate your growing baby and for birth, too
much joint separation can cause pain and sprain.
Pregnancy also brings on an increase in your body’s fluid volume, which can collect in the joint cavities, causing painful, swollen ankles and knees. Fluid buildup in the wrists, which is especially common in people who work on a computer for long periods of the day, can compress the nerves in the hands, resulting in carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms include painful joints in the hands and fingers, as well as numbness.
Keep your symptoms at bay
Although this all sounds rather daunting, these are your potential worst-case scenarios and many home remedies and exercises can keep symptoms at bay, reassures Nigel.
- Try to stay mobile during your pregnancy with a gentle exercise routine of regular walking, he urges. Swimming is also ideal during pregnancy.
- Being on two legs, and even sitting, are not ideal postures for pregnancy and gravity isn’t kind to your growing uterus. Gentle stretches that allow your baby to have some ‘hammock’ time can be very beneficial. To do this, get onto your hands and knees and arch your back towards the ceiling like an angry cat and then let your tummy gently sag towards the floor. From there, stay on your knees and drop onto your forearms to take the pressure off your pelvis.
- It’s also important to pay attention to your posture, urges Nicolette Raats, a physiotherapist at Midwives Exclusive in Pretoria, where she mainly treats pregnant women. “Stand, sit or walk as straight as possible by gently tucking your tummy in (yes, you can still do this), relax your shoulders, lift your chest and tuck your chin in slightly. Also, switch your high heels for low ones with good arch support.”
- When sitting, keep your knees below the level of the hips and support your lower back with a pillow. When lifting things, including other children, use your legs to do the work, keep your back straight, and avoid twisting and bending activities – or any movement that causes pain.
Relieving muscular discomfort
If aches set in, there are ways to find relief.
- Warm baths, hot packs, arnica oil and Traumeel gel can provide relief for aching muscles and joints. However, certain remedies, including the application of hot packs and cold packs over the lower back and pelvis, must be used with caution − particularly up to and including the 16th week of pregnancy, cautions Nigel. Some aromatherapy oils are contraindicated in pregnancy, so it’s advisable to seek guidance from your healthcare provider before self-treating.
- Painful back muscles can benefit from applying a warm compress or hot pack for seven minutes followed by a cool (not ice-cold) compress or cold pack for 10 minutes. Relief can be gained by soaking a towel in apple-cider vinegar, lying on the left side to prevent compression of those big blood vessels between the spine and the uterus, and applying the towel to the lower back for 20 minutes.
- Relaxation is a good way to deal with pain, especially if your stress levels are high, advises Nicolette. Get your partner to massage arnica oil into aching muscles and find other ways to take the edge off.
- TENS machines applied over the lumbar spine can bring relief, but there are certain risk factors so check with your healthcare provider before proceeding. You can also invest in a pregnancy support belt to give extra stability, she suggests.
- Not all aches and pains can be dealt with using home remedies. Osteopaths, physiotherapists and chiropractors all offer treatment to relieve pain and can advise you on appropriate exercises and pain management strategies.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.