Is back labor actually a thing -- or just a myth? Get the scoop!

By Lisa Milbrand
Tetra Images/Corbis

It makes sense that you'd feel some pain and discomfort during labor in your uterus and vagina, but intense back pain doesn't seem like it should be part of the equation. About one third of all women, though, experience back labor, developing intense pain in the lower back that doesn't always subside when the contraction ends.

But labor doesn't have to be a pain in the back -- discover what causes it, and how you can ease the misery.

  • Your baby's position can cause back labor. Babies are usually born with their head facing down, but some babies move into the birthing canal with their head facing up; this is called occiput posterior. And if you're having back labor, that can be the reason. "Sometimes back pain during labor is caused by position of the baby, especially if baby is presenting with the head looking up," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "That can cause more perception of pain in the back, because of the pressure of the head on the nerves in back when contractions occur in that position. That's the only unique characteristic that can contribute to the perception of pain in the back."
  • Even if your baby is in correct position, you may feel your labor pain in the back. "Sometimes it's just the way the mother perceives pain," Dr. Putterman says. "When the baby's head gets squeezed in the pelvis by the contractions, the head is putting pressure on your normal anatomy, and sometimes it's going to be felt in the front, on the side, or at the top or bottom." As your baby's position changes during labor, you may find that the back pain subsides -- a comforting thought if you're in the throes of back labor.
  • Fortunately, you don't have to suffer through back labor: There are things you can do to help reduce back pain. "When the baby's head is facing upward, that generally contributes more to lower back pain," says Paul du Treil, M.D., director of maternal and child health at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. "That can be relieved with an epidural." If you're committed to a drug-free birth, you may find other ways to relieve the pain. "Getting into a tub of warm water helps, or positional changes during labor help," Dr. Putterman says. "There are a lot of different positions that you can use -- on your side, standing up, rolling on a ball. You have to play around with those positions to see what works for you."
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember that labor doesn't last forever -- and as soon as you see that gorgeous little face, it will all be worth it.

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