Why Pregnancy Causes Sciatica and What to do about It

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Back pain during pregnancy is almost a given. Sciatica is a specific type of back pain that is common in pregnancy and particularly uncomfortable. It can send shock waves of burning pain from your lower back, through your butt, and down the back of your leg.

Outside of pregnancy, the most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disc. This cause is not common during pregnancy. However, the changes in your body caused by pregnancy are a common cause of sciatica. In fact, over 50 percent of pregnant women may experience some sciatic nerve pain.

Why Does Pregnancy Causes Sciatica?

Your sciatic nerves are the largest nerves in your body. They come out of your lower spine and run down the back of your legs all the way down to your toes. A sciatic nerve can get stretched, pinched, or stressed during pregnancy in several ways:

  • As your uterus grows, it can press on the neve, which runs underneath the uterus.
  • A hormone called relaxin, causes the ligaments in your lower body and pelvis to loosen up in preparation for childbirth. Ligaments are the tissues that attach between bones to hold them together. As these ligaments relax, your center of gravity changes, which can put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Weight gain during pregnancy puts more pressure on you spine.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Swelling and irritation (inflammation) of the sciatic nerve is most common in the third trimester of pregnancy. Pain can be mild to severe and can come and go. Classic sciatica causes a burning pain that shoots down the back of your leg, usually just on one side. You may feel pain in your lower back and pain in the back of your thigh. There may also be a pins and needles sensation along the path of the nerve. Your health care provider can diagnose sciatica from the symptoms.

What Can You Do?

You may be able to reduce your risk of sciatica by strengthening your core muscles. Exercises for core strength include low-impact aerobics, walking, Pilates, yoga, or swimming. If you have sciatica, it’s good to know that it usually goes way on its own, and almost always goes away after pregnancy. Home treatments include:

  • Taking acetaminophen for pain relief
  • Sleeping on your side, the opposite the side of sciatic pain
  • Sleeping on your side with a full body pillow
  • Avoiding activities that make pain worse, like lifting or prolonged standing
  • Using a heating pad or an ice pack on your lower back
  • Taking a hot bath or shower
  • Getting a message

Stretching can help relieve sciatic nerve pain. Yoga is a stretching and strengthening exercise often recommended for sciatica. Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to learn and practice specific stretches. Check with your health care provider before starting these on your own.

Call your health care provider if you have sciatica that is severe or getting worse. Let your doctor know if your leg feels numb or weak. In most cases, the home treatments will work, and sciatica will just be one of those annoying side effects of pregnancy that will be gone and forgotten after childbirth.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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