All About Upper Back Pain During Pregnancy

From an expanding mid-section to stress and hormonal changes, a number of factors can cause upper back pain during pregnancy. Here, experts share how you can get some relief.

Pregnant women suffering from pain in shoulder and back

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Are you experiencing back pain during pregnancy? If so, you're not alone. It's estimated that 50 to 80% of expectant parents endure this all-too-common symptom. And while most pregnant people feel the aching in their lower back, some report pain in their upper back, neck, and shoulders. Yes, you can experience upper back pain during pregnancy.

"While upper back pain during pregnancy is less common than lower back pain, it can and does occur," says Apurva Shah, M.D., a Boston-based OB-GYN. "Most expectant [parents] describe this as [a] dull but intense pain, one which is often severe enough to restrict one's ability to function. It also tends to worsen as the day goes along, especially for those who are standing on their feet all day."

So what causes this irritating symptom and, more importantly, how can you relieve it? Here's everything you need to know about upper back pain during pregnancy.

When Does Upper Back Pain Start in Pregnancy?

While pregnant people may experience aches, pains, and generalized discomfort at any time, upper back pain during pregnancy typically affects those in their first and third trimesters. Why? Well, you can thank increased stress and hormonal surges for those early twinges, says Michelle Tham Metz, M.D., an OB-GYN for Health Central and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. In the third trimester, growing breast size and a changing center of gravity are likely to blame.

What Upper Back Pain During Pregnancy Feels Like

Ranging from a deep ache to a sharp pain, upper back pain can manifest in several ways during pregnancy. It can also occur on one or both sides. When in doubt, speak with a health care provider about the pain you're experiencing. They can offer advice on how to treat it as well as rule out any bigger concerns.

Causes of Upper Back Pain During Pregnancy

There are many potential causes of upper back pain in pregnancy, including stress and hormonal changes. The hormone relaxin, for example, prepares a person's body for pregnancy and childbirth but it can cause some unwanted side effects, like body aches and pains.

"Hormonal changes during pregnancy can also cause a laxity of the ligaments and muscular tone, causing them to work harder—and thus additionally causing pain," says Kecia Gaither, M.D., a Bronx-based double board-certified OB-GYN.

Larger breast mass may cause residual upper back pain as well. According to Dr. Gaither, "Increased breast girth can add weight to the chest, altering posture and increasing muscular work and strain along the upper back."

Finally, uterus changes and weight gain can cause upper back spasms or strains. "As the uterus grows upwards and outwards, the spinal alignment shifts the center of gravity," notes Dr. Gaither. "There is a pregnancy 'lordosis,' or an inward spine curvature. Muscle spasms can occur due to this change, in addition to the pregnancy weight changes, causing pain."

How to Relieve Upper Back Pain During Pregnancy

While upper back pain is common during pregnancy, it is possible to get some relief. "Acupuncture and core strengthening work are both helpful to relieve back pain," suggests Dr. Tham Metz. "Staying active and gaining a healthy amount of weight is also key."

Supportive shoes and a good bra can make a big difference, especially if the upper back pain is due to increased breast mass. Some experts also suggest prenatal massage to relieve symptoms. Warm or cold compresses might be worth a shot too—and don't be afraid to ask a health care provider about pain medication if the discomfort persists.

To prevent upper back pain during pregnancy, you should stretch regularly, avoid lifting heavy objects, and maintain good posture. That's because standing tall with chest high and shoulders back can alleviate tension and stress.

When to See a Doctor for Upper Back Pain During Pregnancy

Despite being a major source of discomfort, upper back pain during pregnancy isn't usually a cause for alarm. "Back pain during pregnancy is not cause for concern unless it interferes significantly with your day-to-day activities," says Cynthia Flynn, M.D., a Florida-based OB-GYN.

That said, if you find your back pain is persistent or is severely affecting your quality of life, you should discuss it with a health care provider. "Some conditions can manifest with back pain, such as liver disease or a lung infection [and also preterm labor], so always make sure to touch base with your OB-GYN," says Dr. Tham Metz.

When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention

You should seek medical attention right away if you experience any upper right shoulder pain, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure or preeclampsia or if you are also experiencing other symptoms such as changes to your vision or sudden swelling, as it may be a symptom of preeclampsia.

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