Back pain is often a fact of pregnancy life -- doctors say at least half of pregnant women will experience it at some point during their pregnancy. The pain, while definitely a source of distress, is usually not a sign of any danger to either the mom or baby. But there are some cases that are important to get checked out.
First and foremost, women should always have an open line of communication with their doctors. If you're concerned about back pain (or anything else), don't be shy about bringing it to your doctor's attention. "This is what your OB is there for," says Mary Rosser, M.D., Ph.D., an ob-gyn at the Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. "If you have any doubt, give her a call." At the very least, you might get some tips on how to relieve your pain -- and the reassurance that you're not suffering alone.
Sometimes back pain is a red flag that something serious is going on. Among the most worrisome causes of pregnancy back pain is preterm labor. Dr. Rosser advises that women watch for pain that is "new" and "cyclical," which could be a sign of uterine contractions, along with vaginal bleeding or any change in vaginal discharge that could indicate a placental issue or an early rupture of your waters.
Damla Karsan Dryden, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston, advises patients to watch for an abdominal sensation that might be described as a "tightening uterus," which could be painless or could feel like mild, period-like cramping. If this sensation is accompanied by back pain that comes and goes at regular intervals, uterine contractions could be happening, which could possibly signifying preterm labor. Although a woman in this situation can take the recommended dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) and rest on her side for a bit, "if the back pain is severe and is not relieved with rest and pain medicine, she should contact her health care provider," Dr. Dryden advises.
A fever, when accompanied by a dull ache across your lower back or along the sides of your back between the ribs and hips, could be a sign of a kidney or bladder infection that needs immediate attention and treatment with antibiotics, Dr. Rosser says. Keep in mind, though, that as the pregnancy advances, the growing uterus puts pressure on the bladder, so frequent or urgent urination is common and normal. But if these symptoms also include painful urination, blood in the urine, chills, or fever, these may be signs of kidney or urinary tract issues, and treatment may be needed. In some cases, bladder infections can cause the uterus to contract, so see your doctor for a prompt diagnosis.
Even though the cause of numbness is usually not a more worrisome condition, like preterm labor, it could signify compression of the sciatic nerve or other nerves that connect your spine to the lower body and pelvic area. Sciatic nerve pain is common during pregnancy, and you may be able to find relief by working with a chiropractor or physical therapist to open up the area and keep oxygen-rich blood flowing freely. But if you experience numbness, tingling, or a sharp, shooting pain in your buttocks, legs, or feet, call your doctor to make sure there are no serious conditions.
Back pain that comes on suddenly and severely -- and without an apparent cause -- should be examined to rule out the rare but painful conditions of pregnancy-association osteoporosis and arthritis. Also, if you experience back pain following a physical trauma, such as a fall or a car accident, contact your doctor immediately to rule out any serious injury to yourself or the baby.
There is plenty to worry about during pregnancy, but women shouldn't add back pain in and of itself to their worry list. But neither should they dismiss it as a "normal" part of how the body responds to carrying a child. "Don't wait until the pain is so severe that you can't do anything," says Colleen Fitzgerald, M.D., medical director of the Chronic Pelvic Pain Program at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Illinois. And "don't accept that pain is a normal part of pregnancy. Mild to moderate pain that limits function or activity is worth treating and [treatment] can stop the progression to more severe or even chronic pelvic girdle pain," Dr. Fitzgerald says. So talk to your doctor for approved pain relief techniques; starting them early can help prevent escalating pain and allow you to be active and enjoy your pregnancy.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com, and she is the co-author, with yoga teacher Liz Owen, of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back by Liz Owen and Holly Lebowitz Rossi.