Uncontrollable Shaking During Labor and Pregnancy Hormones

A labor nurse weighs in on how pregnancy hormones can shake up — quite literally — both your body and mental state.

pregnant woman lying on side
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Hormones are probably responsible for a lot of the drama in the world—including pregnancy. They're responsible for the "labor shakes" and for creating emotional roller coasters for many pregnant women.

We hear "hormones" and instantly think estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, the ones responsible for turning boys and girls into men and women and eggs and sperm into babies. But that's just the beginning of the hormone story. We have oodles of hormones running our bodies and telling us what to do. Subtle shifts in hormone levels create an avalanche of physical and emotional responses that regulate everything from how our hearts beat, to our metabolism, temperature control, growth, cell recovery, how much we pee, how we handle stress, our moods, sleep patterns…everything.

We can't live without hormones. Thyroid (responsible for more body systems than I can list here) and insulin (crucial for sugar metabolism) are two other hormones we hear a lot about, but then there's adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine – famous for triggering our fight or flight responses to danger, and cortisol, released during stress.

Hormones run our bodyworks behind the scenes and most of the time, we don't notice them at all until one goes off kilter or becomes dominant. Then we can't help but pay attention.

That's probably what's happening when pregnant women get the "labor shakes," described as uncontrollable shivering, trembling or teeth-chattering. Desiree Bley, MD, OB-GYN at Providence Hospital in Portland OR, says, "Labor shakes are related to hormone shifts, adrenaline response and temperature. We're all different so some women get them and some don't. I had a patient who bit her tongue because her teeth were chattering so hard."

During labor, oxytocin (either our own natural supply or the stuff given through IV for induced labor) causes uterine contractions, but some women also experience muscle contractions in their legs, back, arms and feet. Add raging doses of stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine and rapidly shifting hormones that transition women through labor and past delivery, and mix with other dramatically fluctuating body chemicals.

pregnant woman lying on side

The result: massive physical reactions that resemble shock. Some women shake, sweat, cry, vomit, itch, tremble or have other symptoms. A soak in a warm tub or wrapping up in warm blankets might make your muscles relax. If that doesn't work, Bley says, "Demerol (a narcotic medication) stops the shakes, but we don't hand that stuff out like candy anymore."

Bottom line: Labor shakes are normal, natural and pretty annoying.

But hormones can have emotional impacts, too. A woman who's pregnant with a much-wanted baby may not feel excited or happy about the pregnancy. But here's a secret: Feeling ambivalent about pregnancy isn't just normal; it's common. Lots of women expect pregnancy to be one life-altering thrill after another. Instead, it's one life-altering change after another coinciding with nausea, insecurity and fatigue. After a lifetime of thinking pregnancy is going to be like a day at Disneyland, it can quite a let down when it's actually more like, well, being pregnant.

Raging hormones usually indicate a pregnancy is normal and healthy, but they can also wreak havoc on our emotional wellbeing and throw our mind-body connection out of whack. Don't discount how much mental, physical and emotional work you're doing during pregnancy. Think of it as: Extreme Makeover – Hormone Edition. Pregnancy is a completely transformative process that takes a women from being an independent person whose life revolves around her own interests to being a mother, completely responsible for someone else's life. That doesn't happen overnight and if you didn't feel at least a little ambivalent about it, I'd worry.

The fact that you're admitting you're not entirely delighted shows you're in touch with your emotions, have uncommon insight and are honest. Don't worry this foreshadows how you'll feel about your baby. You're going to be fine and you'll love your baby madly.

If, however, your feelings change to lingering sadness, hostility, anxiety, anger or other strong, pervasive, negative feelings, you might be experiencing depression, which is also common. Don't hang out with these feelings on your own. Get help from your partner, doctor, family and a therapist. And take heart. Pregnancy may suck right now (at least a little), but it gets better and for most women, motherhood is great, most of the time.

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