For all of the wonder and joy that comes with pregnancy, the actual experience of being pregnant is physically unpleasant for many women. From nausea and heartburn to difficulties sleeping and the discomfort that comes with the stretching and moving of muscles and ligaments, the 40 weeks spent being pregnant may be some of the most physically uncomfortable that any woman spends in her life.
One common ailment, sciatic nerve pain, also known as sciatica, can make pregnancy practically unbearable in some cases. While sciatica can occur for a number of reasons, including physical injury, a significant number of patients experience the pain for the first time while pregnant. Marked by a sharp or shooting pain, numbness, or tingling (or all three) that begins in the lower back or buttocks and extends down the leg, sciatic nerve pain in pregnancy is usually caused by pressure from the uterus pushing down on the sciatic nerve. The pain can appear at any point during pregnancy, but it’s most common in the second and third trimesters, when the baby is larger and heavier, and thus more likely to compress the nerve and cause pain.
While many women report that the pain that initially began in pregnancy lasts for several years after giving birth, the majority of cases of pregnancy-induced sciatica are temporary. Still, even the knowledge that the pain will disappear after delivery doesn’t make it any less excruciating. Thankfully, there are some safe, easy methods of sciatic nerve pain relief, or even prevent it from happening in the first place.
Preventing Pain in Pregnancy
When you learn that you are pregnant, you might be tempted to go crazy with your diet and cancel your gym membership. While you may need to take in a few more calories and modify your workouts, doctors agree that for most women, maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise is an important part of a healthy pregnancy — and helps keep weight gain at manageable levels. In other words, no more “eating for two.”
Staying active and not gaining too much weight can help reduce the likelihood of nerve pain as well. Studies show that women who are in reasonably good shape before pregnancy and maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise routine during the early days of gestation tend to have an easier time overall handling all of the discomforts of pregnancy.
When you maintain good muscle tone, you can maintain control over your whole body as it changes, and have better range of motion to prevent an attack of sciatica. And of course, maintaining a healthy weight means less pressure on the nerve from your uterus.
Bottom line? Keep exercising throughout your pregnancy, as long as your doctor says it’s safe. Consider gentle exercises, like prenatal yoga, to keep your muscles and ligaments loose and flexible, and less prone to pain.
Dealing with the Pain
Sometimes, even despite your best efforts, nerve pain strikes. When it does, it can range from uncomfortable to debilitating, usually leaning more toward the latter end of the spectrum.
If you’re pregnant and dealing with sciatica, mention it to your health care provider. He or she will probably recommend a number of relief measures, including:
- While studies indicate that bed rest isn’t always the best course of action for sciatica, as it can lead to additional stiffness or even muscle atrophy, pregnant women are often advised to take it easy.
- Use heat and cold. Alternating warm, moist heat with cold compresses can relieve pain.
- Support your lower body. Sleeping on a firm mattress with a pillow under your knees can relieve pressure on the lower back.
- Get a massage. A pregnancy massage can help release some of the pressure on the nerve.
- Wear flat shoes. Pregnant women should avoid high heels in general, as anything that can affect your balance can be dangerous. If you’re experiencing nerve pain, though, it’s even more important to wear flats, as anything that causes your body to lean back on your heels is going to exacerbate the issue.
- Do gentle stretches. Ask your health care provider for suggestions of gentle stretches you can do to relieve the pressure on the nerve and reduce pain.
If these measures do not work to relieve the pain, you might need to consider visiting a pain management center. There a pain specialist can help relieve the pain and ensure you have a safe and healthy pregnancy. Above all, remember that the pain is most likely only a short-term annoyance, and there’s a good chance that once you have a baby in your arms, you’ll forget all about it.