How to Cope With Sciatica During Pregnancy
Aches and pains are pretty much par for the course during pregnancy (we’re sorry to say), and one of the most common pregnancy discomforts is lower back pain, especially as pregnancy progresses. That sharp, shooting pain can radiate into your butt and legs, and it’s no one’s idea of a good time. So what’s causing it? One possibility is sciatica, a painful condition caused by nerve compression. Read on to learn more about sciatica during pregnancy and how to find sweet, safe relief.
Sciatica is a painful nerve condition involving the compression of the sciatic nerve, a network of nerves that run from your lower back all the way down into your butt and down your leg. The nerve can be compressed at any point along that route, starting inside the spine, which is usually caused by a herniated disc, or along the path of the nerve as it runs through the pelvis and down your leg. When that happens, it sometimes feels like a sharp cramp or an electric jolt down your leg.
In the general population, sciatica is usually caused by herniated discs—but sciatica due to a herniated disc is actually pretty rare during pregnancy, affecting roughly 1 percent of moms-to-be. However, the sciatic nerve can be compressed by other things that are very common in pregnancy. Loose ligaments, general body swelling and the position of a growing baby in the pelvis can all put pressure on the sciatic nerve. In fact, 50 to 80 percent of expectant women suffer from lower back sciatica pain in pregnancy.
The most common sciatica symptoms include:
- Sharp, cramp-like or electric pain in your back, butt or legs
- Feeling of pins and needles in your back, butt or legs (also known as paresthesias)
- Tenderness over your lumbar spine
- Weakness in your feet
A diagnosis of sciatica during pregnancy is typically made by a doctor or orthopedic surgeon by performing a detailed medical history and physical examination.
Conservative measures are most often used to treat sciatica pain in pregnancy. The following are some at-home and noninvasive treatments that can offer sciatica pain relief during pregnancy:
• Physical therapy. Pregnancy changes the alignment of your pelvis due to the loosening of ligaments and change in your center of gravity. Physical therapists will guide you on a therapeutic program that focuses on building strength, flexibility and optimizing good posture.
• Warm heating pad. Heat can help calm an irritated nerve.
• Massage. Massages by certified prenatal massage therapists consist mainly of light-stroke massage to help relax muscle tension.
• Low-impact exercise. Stretching and exercises like yoga, pilates and swimming help with maintaining flexibility and strengthening muscles.
• Over-the-counter medication. Tylenol can be used intermittently to help with pain.
• Alternative treatment. Acupuncture, chiropractic work and reiki are examples of some alternative treatments that may help provide sciatica pain relief during pregnancy.
Sciatica pregnancy stretches
Sciatica stretches are an easy and pregnancy-safe way to find relief.
- Kneel on the ground and place your palms flat on the floor with your arms straight under your shoulders. Round your back while pulling in your abs.
- Relax your abdominals while gently flattening out your back.
- Repeat for up to 10 times.
Seated figure four stretch:
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
- For sciatica pain on your right side, cross your right ankle over your left knee (and vice versa for left-sided sciatica pain).
- Gently lean forward and hold for 15 to 20 seconds. This stretches a pelvic muscle called the piriformis.
- Sit upright again and repeat a few times.
Child’s pose stretch:
- Kneel on the ground and place your palms flat on the floor with your arms straight under your shoulders.
- Shift your body backward so your pelvis reaches towards your heels, your arms reach forward flat on the floor and your head tucks close to your knees.
- Shift back to an upright position and repeat up to 10 times.
If the sciatica pain, numbness and tingling significantly affect your quality of life or your ability to go to work, you should be evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon. They’ll perform a thorough history and physical exam and discuss additional evaluation and treatment options that are safe during pregnancy.
Here’s the good news: For the majority of moms, the symptoms of sciatica during pregnancy usually go away in the first few months after birth. However, up to a third of moms can still have lower back pain at three months postpartum. In this case, evaluation by an orthopedic surgeon to rule out additional causes of pain may be warranted.
The best way to prevent sciatica pain in pregnancy is to stay fit and build strong core and lumbar muscles. (Yep, yet another reason to exercise during pregnancy). Some great ways to get in some moderate, pregnancy-safe exercise include:
- Low intensity aerobics
- Yoga or pilates
Erin Nance, MD, is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon and hand surgeon. She specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery and conservative treatment, and has a focus on treating common injuries and conditions in women. She practices in New York City, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Visit her at NanceMD.com.
Published November 2019
Plus, more from The Bump: