With pregnancy comes all kinds of new aches and pains, but some expecting parents might rank sciatica as one of the worst. The severity and frequency of sciatic pain vary from person to person, but all it takes is one experience to compel someone to do whatever they can to avoid it forever. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to try to prevent—or at least treat the symptoms of—this common pregnancy symptom.
The Link Between Sciatica and Pregnancy
If you’re experiencing “numbness, burning, or tingling down the leg, you might be facing sciatica,” says Evelyn Haworth, DC, a chiropractor in Chicago. Sciatica is a condition that can happen any time, but it is particularly a problem for some during the third trimester. She explains, “The sciatic nerve is formed by five nerve roots that come together at exiting the spine … if any of the nerve roots or sciatic nerve are pinched, it can result in sciatic nerve pain.”
What would cause those nerves to get pinched during pregnancy, specifically? “The growing uterus puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body,” says Kris Adair, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, a nurse practitioner and founder of Adair Family Clinic and MedSpa, adding, “This pressure can lead to pain, numbness, or tingling sensations in the lower back, hips, buttocks, and legs.”
Additionally, Adair says the hormonal changes of pregnancy that cause ligaments in the body to become more flexible can contribute to sciatica, as there is less support to keep the nerve protected from irritation or compression. Dr. Haworth cites weight gain, water retention, uterine expansion, and poor posture (often due to your growing abdomen and breasts) as other possible contributors. Plus, as your baby grows, its position could press against the nerve, causing that unpleasant sensation.
Positions That Aggravate the Sciatic Nerve
There’s not really anything you can do about your changing ligaments or where your baby chooses to snuggle up in your uterus, but you aren’t entirely helpless. Some positions are known to be more bothersome than others when it comes to sciatica.
“Sciatic nerve pain during pregnancy can occur in any position,” explains Adair, “but it is more likely to happen when standing or sitting for long periods or when changing positions too quickly.” She says sleeping on your back can also result in sciatic pain, as it puts pressure on the nerve.
In addition to avoiding these positions or situations when possible, Adair also suggests trying your best to maintain good posture (we know that’s not exactly easy when your center of gravity is all out of whack). You can also potentially prevent sciatic nerve pain by making sure to stretch regularly and do muscle-strengthening exercises—as long as your OB has approved them.
How to Relieve Sciatica Pain
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t avoid sciatica. In this case, Adair and Dr. Haworth offer these suggestions for finding some relief:
- Sleep on a firm mattress and lay on your side with a pillow between your knees to keep your hips and spine in alignment.
- If you’ve been sitting for a long time, take periodic breaks to stand; if you’ve been standing for a long time, take regular breaks to sit.
- Avoid lifting heavy objects.
- Practice gentle exercises, such as walking or prenatal yoga, to help strengthen the muscles that support your spine and reduce pressure on the nerve (check with your provider before beginning any new exercise, though).
- Apply heat or cold to the affected area.
- Wear a pregnancy belt when your bump begins to protrude.
- Take warm baths.
- Get a prenatal massage.
Dr. Haworth and Adair stress the importance of talking to your OB if your sciatic pain persists. “In some cases, your health care provider may recommend physical therapy or chiropractic care to help alleviate the pain,” says Adair.
Finally, Adair says it’s also imperative to seek medical attention immediately “if the pain is severe or persistent, or if you experience other symptoms such as fever, loss of bladder or bowel control, or weakness in the legs.”
Sciatica is undoubtedly one of the least enjoyable parts of pregnancy, but like all other unpleasant symptoms, it’s helpful to remind yourself that it won’t last forever. In the meantime, rest up as much as possible, change positions frequently, and don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help.