For all the joys of pregnancy and childbirth, they come with a good share of less-than-comfortable side effects, such as nausea, swelling, fatigue, and general achiness. And many women can add sciatica to the list.
At McNulty Spine in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Patrick McNulty diagnoses and treats sciatica daily and has extensive experience helping mothers-to-be navigate their pregnancy-related sciatica. Here he explains the link between pregnancy and sciatica and what you can do if it happens to you.
Pregnancy and back pain
While back pain during pregnancy isn’t inevitable, it’s very likely, and for good reasons. As your baby develops, your body undergoes dramatic musculoskeletal changes to accommodate the growth; some of those changes are bound to cause a few aches and pains.
Your ovaries produce a hormone called relaxin to ease the process. This is the same hormone you produce during your menstrual cycle that relaxes your uterus and prepares it for implantation should it occur. When you become pregnant, relaxin levels remain high to slacken your ligaments and muscles, making them flexible and pliable. Relaxin dilates your blood vessels, allowing for higher blood volume and enabling your pelvis to widen and your cervix to open during delivery.
In this relaxed state, your bones, muscles, and ligaments are looser than normal and can easily add stress and pressure to your pelvis, hips, and lower back. If your musculoskeletal system shifts in a way that compresses your sciatic nerve, you develop sciatica.
Although about half of all pregnant women experience low back pain due to changes in joint stability, posture, shifting center of gravity, and weight gain, sciatica due to a herniated disc is rare — less than 1% of pregnant women experience this.
However, other tissues and structures can press on your sciatic nerve, causing shooting pain and weakness in your lower back, in your hip, and down one leg.
It’s also possible to have posterior pelvic pain (in the back of your pelvis) that mimics sciatica. However, posterior pelvic pain could also affect your groin and can change location and severity as your pregnancy progresses. Either way, you need relief, and we can help.
Sciatica treatments that are safe during pregnancy
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to relieve sciatica symptoms during pregnancy, but always discuss any new activity or remedy with your obstetrician.
Go for a walk
Short walks help sciatica in a couple of ways:
- Increases blood flow
- Shifts musculoskeletal structures
- Strengthens muscles
- Improves joint function
Don’t go on a marathon; shoot for 5-10-minute walks around your neighborhood. Swimming is another great activity for pregnant women with sciatica.
Use ice and heat
Ice is always a great solution for acute pain. Placing a bag of frozen peas or crushed ice directly on the point of pain dulls the pain signals sent to your brain, slows blood flow, and relieves inflamed irritated nerves.
Heat, on the other hand, dilates blood vessels so your body can send healing nutrients to the area and ease muscle soreness.
Stretching can realign your musculoskeletal system and relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve, but do so cautiously. Dr. McNulty can prescribe physical therapy to relieve sciatica safely.
Seek help for long-term pain
After your baby is born, your sciatica symptoms may disappear. However, 73% of women still have back pain for a year after delivery.
Dr. McNulty uses state-of-the-art technology to diagnose the underlying cause of your ongoing sciatica and may recommend spinal injections or minimally invasive surgery to remove the tissues pressing on your sciatic nerve.
A note about cauda equina
About 2% of pregnant women develop cauda equina, an extremely painful condition that starts in your spinal cord and affects your legs. Unlike sciatica, cauda equina can interfere with your ability to pass urine or cause you to lose control of your bowels and bladder.
Cauda equina is serious and requires emergency medical attention from Dr. McNulty and your obstetrician.
Back pain during pregnancy is common, but you don’t have to live with sciatica. For relief, call McNulty Spine or request an appointment online.