Help for Common Pregnancy Complaints

No one ever said pregnancy would be easy. Here's how to cope with headaches, indigestion, sore legs, and more.

Pregnancy is one of life's most natural and beautiful events -- but not the most comfortable. And no wonder: In nine months, your uterus increases in volume about 1,000 times. That's bound to touch off a nerve or two in your body.

Most symptoms, however, are good news. "They indicate that your fetus is growing," says Harold Holbrook Jr., M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. Here, a head-to-toe guide to managing common pregnancy pains.

Headaches

Triggered by hormonal shifts that cause pressure in your blood vessels to fluctuate, these occur most often during the first trimester. But because moms-to-be are also prone to fatigue, sinus congestion, stress, hunger, and caffeine withdrawal, the pounding aches can happen anytime.

What helps: Acetaminophen, taken as directed, is safe and effective. For sinus pressure, place a warm compress over your eyes and nose; for tension aches, apply a cold compress to the base of your neck. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Sore Breasts

Sensitivity usually eases after the first trimester, but you'll continue to bloom, as hormonal surges thicken the breasts' fat layers and multiply milk glands.

What helps: Support bras. Wear a sports bra when you exercise and a lightweight cotton sleep bra to bed to ease breast tenderness.

Indigestion

The hormone progesterone relaxes the muscle that seals off the esophagus from the stomach, allowing acid backwash to irritate the chest. Heartburn worsens in the third trimester as the enlarged uterus pushes the stomach upward.

What helps: Eat small, frequent meals, and avoid spicy, acidic, or fatty foods and carbonated or caffeinated beverages. Sleep on your side, with your head elevated. Remain upright for 30 minutes after meals. "Gravity will help keep food down," says Tessie Tharakahn, M.D., a maternal-fetal specialist at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City.

Nausea and Vomiting

Brought on by hormonal fluctuations, morning sickness can strike at any hour of the day. It usually subsides by the 12th week of pregnancy.

What helps: Nibble on crackers or dry toast before getting out of bed, and eat small, frequent meals throughout the day: An empty stomach often triggers nausea. Increase your intake of vitamin B6 and ginger (both reduce morning sickness). Sue Watts, a mom of two in Deep River, Connecticut, found relief in Sea-Bands, an over-the-counter acupressure wristband typically used for motion sickness. It interrupts the nausea message from the stomach to the brain.

Constipation

Increased levels of progesterone slow the digestive system, and extra iron from prenatal vitamins can harden the stool. The combination can lead to hemorrhoids, swollen rectal veins that itch, burn, and sometimes bleed. They are most prevalent in late pregnancy, when the uterus constricts blood flow, causing veins to become distended.

What helps: Eat a high-fiber diet of fruit, vegetables, and grains. Exercise regularly, and drink eight glasses of water a day, including a warm beverage in the morning to stimulate digestion. Also, ask your doctor about mild laxatives, bulking agents, or stool softeners. "When you're nauseated, taking a couple of FiberCon tablets each day may be easier than stuffing yourself with fiber-rich foods," points out Dr. Tharakahn.

Back Pain and Sciatica

By the second or third trimester, your baby's weight on your pelvic bone may compress your sciatic nerve. The result: sharp pain along your back and legs and in your buttocks.

What helps: Practice good posture (pelvis tucked in, shoulders back). When lifting heavy objects, bend at your knees, not your waist. Place a pillow or rolled towel behind your lower back when you're seated, but don't sit or stand for too long at a time. Sleep on your side, pillows propped between your bent knees and under your belly. "Yoga stretches a few times a week helped my back pain," says new mom Ponteir Sackrey, of Jackson, Wyoming. And consider wearing a "belly bra" -- a panel of elastic fabric that stretches across your abdomen -- to help take pressure off your back.

Groin Pain

Your round ligaments -- cordlike structures in your lower abdomen that hold your uterus in place -- can stretch like rubber bands when you stand up, reach, or make a sudden movement. Pain is common in the second trimester and lessens as your uterus grows larger and more stationary.

What helps: Sit or lie down until the ache passes. "This sharp pain usually doesn't last for more than a few minutes," says Paul Ogburn Jr., M.D., director of obstetrics at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. Take long, deep breaths to ease the spasms, and avoid quick movements.

Leg Cramps

As with back pain, the weight of your uterus may restrict blood flow and compress nerves in your legs. "The pain may also signal a calcium deficiency," says Dr. Tharakahn. These intense spasms frequently occur while you're sleeping, often in the second and third trimesters.

What helps: When you feel a cramp, flex your foot (pull your toes toward your knee) to stretch the calf muscle. Massage the muscle with long, firm strokes toward your foot. To prevent spasms, slowly flex and release your foot ten times before going to bed. "And ask your doctor about calcium supplements," suggests Dr. Tharakahn.

Swollen Feet

Increased fluid retention, slowed circulation, and gravity can cause your feet to swell, especially in hot weather. In the morning, after eight hours of lying down, your feet may deflate, but your face and hands plump up.

What helps: Cut back on salty foods. Avoid crossing your legs or wearing hosiery with tight elastic bands, which restrict circulation. Elevate your feet often. And try swimming. "The water equalizes pressure," says Dr. Ogburn. "So standing in a pool can feel as if you're wearing support hose up to your neck."

Originally published in the May 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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