One night during her third trimester, Cheryl Freiburg, of Point Loma, California, woke up with numb, tingly hands. She recognized the feeling because she'd had mild carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms previously at work. But during pregnancy, her body had swelled as a result of fluid retention, putting major pressure on the nerves in her hands and wrists. "I had to wear braces at night and also at work."
Like Freiburg, many moms-to-be encounter problems that their friends and mother-in-law never dealt with or simply glossed over. Find out about some conditions you might experience.
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You may discover that along with other parts of your body, your gums swell, thanks to changing levels of progesterone and estrogen, and increased blood flow. "A pregnant woman's gums can become engorged with blood, creating deep pockets with tender tissue, and bleed during brushing or flossing," explains Gildo Corradi, D.D.S., a dentist in New York City. If you notice significant bleeding, even when you aren't brushing, see your dentist. He'll check for gingivitis, inflammation of the gums, and periodontitis, a severe version that also affects surrounding ligaments and bone, and which is associated with a higher risk of preterm labor and low birthweight, as well as tooth loss, stroke, and other serious problems. Dr. Corradi recommends having your teeth cleaned at the dentist twice during pregnancy and practicing good oral hygiene at home. For periodontitis, your dentist may give you an antibacterial mouth rinse. Fortunately, dental issues tend to resolve quickly after delivery.
"Get ready for congestion, bloody noses, and snoring. Why? The inside of the lining of your nose also swells, thanks to hormones," says Laura Dean, M.D., an ob-gyn in Stillwater, Minnesota. "That swelling decreases the area for air circulation. Your nose can also be aggravated by dryness, which is worse in winter." You can relieve some of your discomfort by using nasal saline drops or a humidifier, or by spending a few minutes inhaling the steam in the shower. Thankfully, all these nasal issues will vanish after pregnancy.
The increase in progesterone slows down transit time of food from your stomach to your intestines, which can lead to constipation. Plus, prenatal vitamins cause your body to absorb more water, which can make it harder for stool to pass through the gastrointestinal tract. If you're backed up, alternate your prenatal vitamins with a vitamin without iron for a short time, says Dr. Dean, since the iron in the vitamins is especially constipating. Drink lots of fluids (water is best), and load up on fiber by eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. You can also try an over-the-counter fiber supplement like Metamucil, which holds water in your intestine and makes it easier for solids to pass. However, avoid laxatives, which stimulate bowel movements and may decrease hydration and affect nutritional absorption, warns Dr. Dean.
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Your growing baby requires a huge blood supply to deliver extra oxygen and nutrients. "By 20 weeks, your circulating blood volume will have increased by 50 percent," explains Dr. Dean. With all that pressure, it's common to de-velop spider and varicose veins in your legs and feet. There's no way to prevent them, but to decrease pain and swelling, elevate your legs when you can. For severe cases, wear support hose or even bandage-like wraps when you're out.
The other kind of strain -- those dreaded hemorrhoids -- involves swollen and protruding tissue around the anus. They're caused by increased pressure on the veins there, along with the added weight of your baby. (They can also be aggravated by constipation and straining in the bathroom.) Ease the inflammation and pain with cream, medicated pads, and warm baths. Post-baby, both issues should improve drastically but may not go away completely.
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You have probably heard that pregnancy hormones can cause acne, sun sensitivity, and darkening of the skin (usually around the nipples, on the face, and in a strip down your belly called the linea nigra). But you may be a bit surprised to find that you suddenly have a bunch of skin tags -- tiny overgrowths of skin that typically occur in places where your skin rubs together or against clothing, such as your neckline, underarms, or around your breasts. Be sure to use sunscreen on your sensitive skin, and know that the skin issues will go away after pregnancy except for the pigmentation of your areolas (which likely won't ever lighten completely) and the tags, which your doctor can easily remove if they bother you.
Your feet and ankles might just be swollen now, but post-baby, some women find their feet have grown. "Before having kids, I was an 8.5 -- now I'm a 10," says Dr. Dean. Blame it on the hormone relaxin: It loosens ligaments in your pelvis to allow the baby to come out, but it may have a lasting effect on the joints in your feet, causing them to flatten and become wider and/or longer. The effect may be temporary though, so don't toss all your shoes just yet.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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