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Did you know that back pain is the third most common reason people go to the doctor? Approximately 65 million Americans have experienced back pain, and often women in particular are prone to more severe and more frequent back pain. Some research suggests that a gene variant that promotes chronic pain among women, suppresses that pain among men. Another reason could be that a major cause of back pain in women is related to a condition that only women, or those assigned female at birth, experience.
Pregnancy, for example, causes back pain. Fifty to eighty percent of women who are pregnant experience back pain and say that it ranges from mild discomfort to serious chronic pain. And while back pain is a symptom of pregnancy, suffering from back pain does not indicate that the person is pregnant. The two can be connected, but pregnancy isn’t always the cause of back pain. Distinguishing between the two is tricky, but focusing on when the back pain started and if it feels familiar to previous back pain can help.
Here, we break down the timing and symptoms of pregnancy-related back pain, as well as the other possible roots of back pain in women.
When does back pain start in pregnancy?
Pregnancy can be hard on your back. You gain weight, your center of gravity shifts, and your ligaments relax to prepare for the birth—all of which puts extra strain on your back.
Posterior pelvic pain, felt in the back of the pelvis, is a deep pain below the waistline or across the tailbone. This kind of pain is four times more prevalent than lumbar pain which is concentrated above the waist and center back and can extend down to the leg.
If your back pain is due to being pregnant, you’ll likely start to feel the pain early in the first trimester, sometimes as soon as eight weeks. Women who have back pain before they get pregnant are more susceptible to severe back troubles earlier in, and throughout, their pregnancy.
Early pregnancy back pain
Back pain in early pregnancy is typically linked to an increase in hormones and stress. Your progesterone and relaxin levels fluctuate rapidly during this time as they relax the pelvic muscles and loosen soft tissues and ligaments, all in preparation for the pregnancy. This activity can result in the back being overburdened.
Back pain in early pregnancy is often made worse by feelings of stress and anxiety from the mother that increase muscle tension. Being overweight can equally heighten the discomfort.
Despite back pain due to pregnancy starting early, 40% of women still have their symptoms half a year after delivery.
Severe back pain during pregnancy
During pregnancy, it’s not uncommon to experience debilitating back pain that affects your mobility and comfort even when sitting down or lying horizontally. If the back pain persists for more than two weeks, we recommend consulting with a doctor to check that the pain isn’t an indication of something else at play. The doctor can help to find the correct course of treatment.
When severe back pain is localized to the lower back, it could be a sign of potential preterm labor, which is labor that takes place prior to the 37th week of pregnancy. In this instance, the pain tends to come in waves and can spread to the abdomen. Preterm labor doesn’t mean a preterm birth, but it does require immediate medical attention.
Alternatively, severe back pain (whether you are pregnant or not) combined with high fever and vomiting may be a urinary tract infection (UTI). When the infection reaches the kidneys—known as an upper urinary tract infection—it sparks pain in the lower back and groin region. Upper UTIs require immediate attention and are best treated with intravenous antibiotics.
Pregnancy back pain relief
There are many ways to attempt to alleviate back pain spurred by pregnancy. The first is being mindful of your posture. Whether standing or seated, keep your chest upright and your shoulders pushed back. Try not to stand for long periods of time either. When picking things up, bend at the knees, and don’t attempt to lift heavy objects.
At night, sleep on your side with one pillow between your knees and another underneath your stomach. You might also want to wear a support maternity belt to take pressure off your back (you can keep this on throughout the day too). Getting plenty of rest is crucial to reducing back pain and taking care of your overall health.
Pregnancy-safe exercises like prenatal yoga and stretching can also assist with pain because they strengthen your abdomen and back. On top of that, they can lower stress levels and prevent muscle tension from worsening your discomfort.
If at-home measures don’t help, contact local chiropractors that specialize in pregnancy back pain or speak to your doctor about medication to treat excessive inflammation.
So, is back pain a sign of pregnancy? In short, yes, it can be, but it’s not always. Many lifestyle choices and medical conditions can lead to back pain, so it’s important to consider other causes. Be sure to note your symptoms, determine if the pain feels familiar to other times in your life, and consult with a doctor if the pain continues or gets progressively worse.
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