While back pain in pregnancy may make you think of the later stages of pregnancy when you're carrying around a huge bump, it's actually a common symptom of pregnancy very early on.
When does back pain start in pregnancy?
Studies show that lower back pain usually occurs between the fifth and seventh months of being pregnant, although in some cases it begins as early as eight to 12 weeks.
Is lower back pain normal in early pregnancy?
Yes. This pain in your lower spine or even your pelvis (pelvic girdle pain) is caused by a pregnancy hormone called relaxin, which makes your ligaments and joints relax and become looser, so your body is ready to give birth. In fact 50–80% of women experience back pain during pregnancy.
According to the NHS, 'during pregnancy, the ligaments in your body naturally become softer and stretch to prepare you for labour. This can put a strain on the joints of your lower back and pelvis, which can cause back pain.'
Pregnancy hormones temporarily loosen your ligaments, making your back vulnerable. Add in the effect a bump has on your posture and the pressure of a baby on your spinal nerves, and it’s easy to see why back problems are so prevalent in mums.
What being pregnant does to your spine
The same hormone that prepares your pelvis for childbirth can cause ligaments that support the spine to loosen, leading to instability and pain. As baby grows, because of the weight gain, as well as the change in your center of gravity (as you're holding more weight in front of you), your spine is susceptible to aches, pains and injuries from being extended in new, different ways.
Your spine can also become rotated during your pregnancy, particularly if you suffered from back pain before you were pregnant, which can lead to slipped discs and sciatica if left untreated.
You may find that wearing a maternity support belt or belly band helps alleviate your back pain, but there are lots of other ways to soothe back aches too.
How to relieve back pain in pregnancy
When it comes to how to ease back pain in pregnancy, there are a few things you can do to keep your back healthy...
1. Stay active
Pregnant or not, gentle exercise can go a long way to keeping your body — and spine — strong.
‘Regular walking and swimming will keep your muscles in good shape and your joints flexible, which supports your back,’ says pregnancy and postnatal fitness expert Joanna Helcké.
‘Essentially, your joints are supported by ligaments and muscles — so, the stronger they are, the less your back will hurt.’
Mum Beth Green struggled with back pain: 'I struggled a lot with my back during pregnancy, so I found swimming was a great way to exercise as it relieved the pain whilst helping me to stay active.'
Strengthening your core muscles during pregnancy is good practice, preparing you for postnatal recovery. Pilates-style exercises are fantastic for this area, but wait until you’ve seen your GP or spoken to your midwife before exercising, particularly if you didn't exercise much before you were pregnant.
‘A safe way to start is to sit on an exercise ball to eat your meals or while you watch TV,’ says Joanna. ‘Your core muscles have to engage to keep you stable.’ Prenatal yoga classes are also a good way to strengthen your back and beat those aches and pains, they'll also help you to relax.
See our guide on how to exercise during pregnancy.
2. Sleep comfortably
While pregnant, try to sleep on your side, supported by pillows to take pressure off your bump and give your back a well-deserved break from the extra weight. ‘If backache is interrupting your sleep, tuck a cushion under your knees while you’re on your back,’ says Joanna. ‘This tilts your pelvis and gives your spine relief.’
Sleeping on a firm matress will also help keep your back happy.
3. Fix your posture
‘Pregnancy is often the last straw for backs that have put up with years of bad posture and habits,’ says physiotherapist Sammy Margo.
‘Back posture is fundamental to general health and wellbeing,’ adds Sammy. ‘Your alignment affects your organs, breathing, muscles, digestion and fatigue. The effects of poor posture are amplified by pregnancy as ligaments become stretched — and the pain can continue after birth.'
When you’re walking, stop to link your hands behind your back to open your shoulders and get a sense of where your spine should be.
And when sitting, remember BBC: Bum on Back of Chair (sit on the bottom of your jean pockets, not the top).
4. Wear flat shoes
You may long for fabulous footwear, but sticking to heels no higher than one and a half inches will help you keep your posture when pregnancy has thrown you off balance as your centre of gravity shifts.
It's also a good idea to invest in insoles with good arch support, you won't believe how much it will help your back.
5. Feel-good foods (and vitamins)
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon could help relieve back pain by calming inflammation in your blood vessels and nerves. Remember however to eat the oily fish no more than twice a week. You could also take Omega-3 supplements (not cod liver oil) to keep levels topped up and keep back aches in check.
6. Bend at the knees
Bending at the knees to pick things up, rather than curling your whole body forward, means you bear weight in your legs, not your spine.
‘To check you are doing this right, stand in front of a chair and bend as though you’re going to sit,’ says Joanna. ‘As your bottom is about to hit the chair, your back should be neutral, with your heels on the floor and your knees bent.’
Think squat down and lift, rather than putting more strain on your back. Try to avoid lifting if possible, ask your partner or children to help you, or try to do things standing up or sitting down as much as possible while doing chores etc - for example fold the laundry on your kitchen counter or table, or while sitting on the sofa.
7. Soothe pains
Avoid anti-inflammatory painkiller gels with diclofenac, such as Voltarol Emulgel - while good for back pain, as they block the chemicals that cause inflammation, stiffness and tenderness - they are not advised for use while pregnant, particularly if in your third trimester. Instead opt for natural ways to soothe pain.
Studies say acupuncture can be more effective than drugs, while a covered hot-water bottle can help relax tight muscles and boost circulation to ease inflammation.
You can take paracetamol to ease back pain while you are pregnant, unless your GP or midwife says not to. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
8. Mix up your movements
Repetitive movements can trigger pain, so if you're working from home and sitting at a desk all day, mix things up — try to take regular short breaks, even if you just do a circuit of the room, stretching your arms behind your back.
If you're already a mum, feeding, changing nappies and lifting your baby involve a series of repetitive movements. The best way to avoid it, while it may feel unnatural, is to try to alternate the side on which you hold your baby.
How does scoliosis affect pregnancy?
Most pregnant women with sideways curvature of the spine, or scoliosis, will find that their condition doesn't affect their pregnancy at all.
However, women with severe curvature of the spine, or those whose scoliosis involves the hips, pelvis or shoulders, may experience more pain and discomfort, breathing problems or weight-bearing difficulties — especially later in the pregnancy.
Back pain in pregnancy — third trimester
If you're experiencing back pain in your third trimester, let your midwife or GP know, as it could be a sign of early labour.
When should I worry about back pain in pregnancy?
You should seek medical advice if your backache is very painful, if you have pain in your back and you experience any loss of sensation in your legs or bum, or you have pain in your sides (like a stitch).