Mom-to-be nurses her swollen and sore ankles

The A-Z of Body Aches and Pains in Pregnancy

Even the smoothest-sailing pregnancy comes with its share of pregnancy body aches and painful conditions. Luckily, some of these discomforts will go away as your pregnancy progresses, while other aches and pains can be easily soothed. From back pain to varicose veins, read on to find out more about the most common aches and complaints you may have during your pregnancy and what you can do to make life more comfortable and ache-free.

Back Pain

Cramps During Pregnancy

Dental Pain and Sensitivity Headaches

Heartburn and Indigestion

Leg Cramps

Lower Abdominal Pain

Pinched Nerve

Swollen Ankles and Feet

Swollen and Tender Breasts

Varicose Veins and Hemorrhoids

When to See a Doctor: Abnormal Pregnancy Aches and Pains

Back Pain

The most common cause of back pain comes from the strain put on your back muscles as your baby gets heavier. As your weight shifts to the front of your body, you may try to maintain your balance by leaning backwards, which puts additional pressure on the back muscles and can result in pain, stiffness, and soreness. Your abdominal muscles also stretch and weaken over the course of your pregnancy, so you may find your back and spine don’t get the support they need. Pregnancy hormones also contribute to pregnancy-related back pain by relaxing the connective tissue holding your bones in place, especially the ligaments in the joints of your pelvis, in preparation for birth.

The good news is you can take measures to reduce the pain, for example by maintaining good posture when you stand, sit, or move. You can also

  • wear low-heeled shoes with good arch support
  • invest in a firm mattress to support your back
  • lift from the knees instead of bending
  • sleep on your side, and place a pillow between your legs or under your tummy for extra support.

Regular exercise may not give you immediate pain relief, but strengthening your back muscles can help support your back and legs and ease your back pain in the long term. Talk to your healthcare provider about finding the right exercise plan for you while you’re pregnant, but for some inspiration, you can check out our pregnancy excercise tips. Don’t forget that once your little one is born, you won’t be putting that same degree of strain on your back anymore, and you’ll probably start to feel better.

Cramps During Pregnancy

You may experience cramping during pregnancy, whether it’s toward the end, when your body launches into practice contractions, or in the first month, during which you may experience mild cramps.

Approximately two weeks following conception, you may feel some light cramping accompanied by light bleeding when the fertilized egg burrows into the lining of the womb. This is known as implantation bleeding. You may also feel a sharp pain, or what feels like a muscle spasm, in your pelvis due to the stretching ligaments around the uterus. This is known as round ligament pain.

Toward the end of the second trimester and into the third, you may experience practice contractions, known as Braxton Hicks contractions, which can get stronger as you approach your due date. Braxton Hicks contractions usually stop when you take a walk or a rest, but if they get closer together and stronger, look out for any other signs of labour, and consult your healthcare provider if you’re concerned. Braxton Hicks may hurt a little, but they’re perfectly normal, and you can just take them as practice for the big day.

Dental Pain and Sensitivity

Around the second trimester, your gums may feel more sensitive while you’re flossing and brushing, and perhaps even bleed a little. Pregnancy can affect your mouth with issues like pregnancy gingivitis, which is a mild form of gum disease. You can also experience swelling, redness, and bleeding while brushing, as well as inflammation around the gums. You'll also want to look out for periodontitis, a gum infection that damages the soft tissue and the bone that supports your teeth, as well as tooth erosion or cavities due to vomiting in early pregnancy.

Even if your gums are feeling tender, it’s important to keep on brushing twice a day and flossing daily. If you haven’t seen a dentist in the past six months, or if you notice any issues, like tender gums or pain, book an appointment with your dentist. In the meantime, you can alleviate discomfort by rinsing with salt water or switching to a softer toothbrush.

Headaches

As pregnancy hormones soar, estrogen and progesterone may affect headache-related chemicals in your brain. Although it might be tempting to simply pop a painkiller, discuss your options with your healthcare provider. Generally, aspirin is not recommended during pregnancy, but your provider might recommend acetaminophen (such as Tylenol or others) or another medication to help relieve headaches. You might also want to try the following strategies to manage headaches:

  • Use a cool compress
  • Try a few relaxation techniques
  • Avoid headache triggers, like food or odours that have triggered headaches and migraines in the past
  • Get more sleep
  • Do some light to moderate exercise
  • Manage your stress
  • Eat regularly.

Heartburn and Indigestion

Particularly in your first and third trimesters especially, pregnancy hormones will relax the valve between your esophagus and stomach, allowing stomach acid to leak back, causing heartburn. Try to avoid lying down after a meal, ideally for three hours, to help prevent heartburn. This is why it’s a good idea to have dinner earlier in the evening instead of just before bed. However, if you find you still suffer from heartburn at night, you can elevate the head of your bed with a wedge between the box spring and the mattress; pillows alone won’t be as effective.

You can also help prevent heartburn by avoiding certain foods that can trigger it, like those that are fried or spicy, citrus fruits, chocolate, and by eating small, but frequent meals.

Leg Cramps

Leg cramps are one of the most common body aches experienced around the second trimester of pregnancy, as well as in the third trimester. These muscle contractions in the calf or foot often strike at night, and their cause is unclear.

You can help prevent leg cramping during pregnancy by doing a few stretches before bed, and also by staying physically active and drinking plenty of fluids during the day. Comfortable shoes with support help, too. If you find you’re waking up with leg cramps, stretch your muscles by flexing your foot upward, and then back down, to ease the discomfort. You can also have a warm bath or shower, or massage the muscles, and you’ll feel much better.

Lower Abdominal Pain

As your uterus grows during pregnancy, the ligaments that hold it in place will stretch. These are known as round ligaments, and as they stretch, they can cause a sharp, short burst of pain that feels like a muscle spasm in your lower abdominal area. Sometimes, the pain can even linger with some residual soreness, and it can occur on either side. This pain is nothing to worry about; it’s just a kind of “growing pain” you’ll feel as your baby grows. It just means your baby is getting bigger.

You can prevent and relieve these pains during pregnancy by moving more slowly than usual and by not rising too quickly from the bed or a chair. Try to avoid sudden movements. You may find that taking the weight off your uterus a bit can help ease the pain and discomfort, so try a warm bath or simply get into a swimming pool for a bit. You can use a maternity belt or an abdominal support garment, too.

Pinched Nerve

Weight gain as your pregnancy progresses and as your baby grows, along with water retention, may cause nerve pathways to swell and compress nerves. This can result in a pinched nerve, which occurs when surrounding tissues, like bones, tendons, muscles, and cartilage, apply pressure to the nerve. A pinched nerve can happen in various parts of your body and may feel different, depending on the location. Carpal tunnel syndrome is when the nerve is pinched in your wrist, which can lead to your hands and fingers feeling numb, whereas a nerve under pressure around your spine, as in the case of a herniated disk, can make you feel a sharp pain instead. There’s not much you can do about it except rest. Talk to your healthcare provider if the pain persists.

Swollen Ankles and Feet

Swelling in the feet and ankles is common during the later months of pregnancy. This is because your body retains more fluid, and your growing uterus also puts pressure on your veins, which can cause fluid to leave the blood and move into the surrounding tissues, causing swelling. Add pregnancy hormones into the mix, and you might find yourself with puffed up feet and ankles. This swelling will go away after you give birth, but you can make things more comfortable if you

  • stay off your feet, and keep your legs elevated
  • sleep on your left side to take pressure off the large vein that returns blood to the heart
  • wear compression stockings
  • stay physically active every day
  • wear loose clothing
  • soak your feet in cool water
  • stand or walk in a pool to help compress tissues in the legs.

Swollen and Tender Breasts

In your first trimester, hormonal changes may make your breasts feel sore, sensitive, and swollen. Fortunately, this discomfort will likely subside after a few weeks, once your body has adjusted to the surge of pregnancy hormones.

Varicose Veins and Hemorrhoids

Some women develop varicose veins while pregnant. During pregnancy, your overall blood volume increases, while the blood flow from your legs to your pelvis decreases, which puts pressure on your veins. Progesterone also causes the veins to become more dilated or open, which also contributes to varicose veins.

Varicose veins can also appear in the vulva, making it feel sore or swollen, or around your anus and lower rectum, more commonly known as hemorrhoids. Although you can’t control your hormones or your circulation during pregnancy, you can lessen the effects of varicose veins if you

  • sit down, and put up your feet up whenever you get the chance
  • change positions while standing
  • keep an eye on your pregnancy weight − you can read more about healthy pregnancy weight gain to learn more
  • wear support hose that do not constrict at the knee or thigh
  • drink plenty of fluids, and add fibre to your diet to avoid hemorrhoids.

When to See a Doctor: Abnormal Pregnancy Aches and Pains

Many of the pregnancy body aches and pains you’ll experience are perfectly normal, but there are a few symptoms that could point to a more serious condition. For example, if you have upper abdominal pain or shoulder pain coupled with headaches, you may want to see your healthcare provider to make sure it’s not preeclampsia. Or, if you have severe abdominal or pelvic pain accompanied by vaginal bleeding in your first trimester, it could be the sign of an ectopic pregnancy. If you’re in any doubt, consult your provider for further advice.

Aches and pains may strike at some point during your pregnancy, perhaps more than once, but usually they’re perfectly normal, and will go away once your baby is born. Pregnancy is the first step in your journey with your little one, and it will come with ups and downs, but it will all be worth it in the end.

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