Approximately 70 percent of all women experience some degree of back pain and pressure during their second and third trimesters, according to a study published in 2004 in the journal Obstet Gynecol. Strengthen, soothe, and support back muscles with these 12 medication-free strategies for back pain relief.
Why it works: A bulging pregnant belly shifts your center of gravity out from your body. Often without realizing it, you let your lower back be pulled forward into a swayback posture, making back muscles short, tight, and painful. Standing up straight allows muscles to naturally lengthen and stretch, making good posture one of the easiest “exercises” for easing lower back pain.
How to do it: Arrange your different body parts in perfect alignment from the top down. Roll your shoulders back and lift your rib cage. Position your head so your ears are in line with your shoulders. Contract abdominal muscles (feels like drawing your belly button closer to your spine) and flatten your back to position hips. For better support and balance, stand with your knees slightly flexed. “Maintain this position by imagining a cord pulling you from above,” says Amanda Larson, a physical therapist and prenatal yoga instructor in Portland, Maine.
Lower Back Extensions
Why it works: Abdominal and back muscles normally work together to support your body’s midsection. As abdominal muscles become increasingly lax in order to accommodate a growing uterus, back muscles compensate by working much harder. Lower back extensions safely strengthen back muscles during pregnancy, making their tough work a little easier (and less painful for you).
How to do it:
- Get down on your hands and knees.
- Larson recommends placing an exercise mat underneath you for comfort and support.
- Keep your elbows slightly flexed (not locked) and your back straight.
- Extend your right arm out in front of you at shoulder height.
- Extend your left leg out behind you at hip height. Contract your abdominal muscles.
- Hold this position for five counts, advises Larson.
- Repeat 10 to 20 times on both sides.
For best results, start performing this exercise early on in pregnancy.
Why it works: Prenatal yoga is a relaxing way to tone parts of the body most affected by pregnancy, including the back. “Almost every yoga posture I teach engages back muscles, providing a gentle but effective workout to stretch sore muscles and strengthen the lower back,” says Larson.
How to do it: Can’t make it to class? Get pain relief fast with child’s pose, a very basic yoga position.
- Kneel on the floor with legs spread apart.
- Sit back on your heels.
- Tuck your chin down to your chest, and with arms extended, bend forward until your forehead, forearms, and elbows are resting on the floor. Your belly should easily fit between your legs. If not, spread your knees wider.
- Hold this stretch for up to one minute.
- Breathe naturally. Adds Larson, “This position promotes relaxation and can instantly relieve lower back tension.”
Why it works: Pelvic tilts (also called “pelvic rocking”) strengthen abdominal muscles, relieve backache, and help improve posture. “Abdominal muscles do relax somewhat during pregnancy, but keeping them toned can still go a long way in alleviating back strain,” says Larson.
How to do it: Get down on all fours. Keep your elbows slightly bent and back flat (visualize your back as a coffee table). Contract your abdominal muscles and rotate your pelvis so your tailbone is pointing toward the floor. Hold for a count of five and then release. Repeat 10 to 20 times. Pelvic tilts can also be done lying down on your back (until the 20th week of pregnancy) and leaning against a wall, using the same basic rock and hold motion.
Why it works: Take a dip—and take a much-needed break from back strain. Because water supports your weight, swimming and prenatal water aerobics classes relieve pressure from your back and joints while still giving you a great whole-body workout.
If you just want to give your aching back a break by floating around the pool in your cute maternity bathing suit, that’s OK, too.
How to do it: Some hospitals have their own fitness center swimming pools; your health insurance might completely or partially cover the cost of pool access at these facilities. Check your insurance policy to see if you qualify for a discount at health clubs or YMCAs in your area offering prenatal swim classes. If not, many health clubs offer a lower monthly rate for pool-only privileges.
Why it works: A mainstay of traditional Eastern medicine now commonplace around the globe, acupuncture places thin, sterile needles at specific “energy points” in order to activate the body’s own natural pain relief system. How effective is it? In a 2007 study published in the journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, it was discovered that 60 percent of women who received acupuncture for both back and pelvic pain reported less intense back pain, compared with 14 percent of women who did not.
How to do it: Find an acupuncturist experienced with treating pregnant women or ask your doctor to refer you to a medical acupuncturist—a physician trained in the art of acupuncture (bonus: your insurance might cover visits with a medical acupuncturist). Expect the acupuncturist to insert needles into your skin that stay in place for several minutes to an hour. (Does it hurt? No more than a slight pin prick, say most acupuncture patients.) Pain relief can be immediate or take several visits to achieve.
Why it works: Chiropractors adjust misaligned joints, especially in the spine, to relieve nerve stress and promote healing throughout the body. Does it work? According to medical researchers in Sweden, chiropractic care is extremely effective in treating pregnancy-related back pain. And a 1998 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that 70 percent of pregnant women receiving chiropractic adjustments achieved long-term relief from pain.
How to do it: Chiropractors use hands-on pressure to gently adjust spinal misalignments. Seek out a chiropractor experienced with treating pregnant women or look for a member of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association, a certifying organization for chiropractors specializing in prenatal and children’s care.
Lumbar Support Pillows
Why it works: Does your desk job require you to sit for hours? Good posture is just as important while sitting down as it is when you are standing upright. Keep your head and shoulders in line and use a lumbar support pillow (a small pillow specially designed to fit the lower back) to keep your back properly positioned and pain-free.
More tips for the office: Lumbar support pillows can be purchased at most medical supply stores or online. Also consider picking up a footstool to keep under your desk, as leg elevation while sitting can also ease back pressure.
Supportive Sleep Environment
Why it works: When backache persists after you are in bed for the night, shift your body into a more back-friendly position. Sleeping on your side and using strategically placed pillows for support can provide relief from aches and pains, and help you get some much-needed rest.
How to do it: Lying on your left side, keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine by using a firm pillow for your head. Place another pillow between your legs to relieve pelvic and back pressure. Finally, tuck a small pillow beneath your tummy to prevent a heavy belly from pulling your back forward as you sleep. According to research conducted by Dr. Darryl B. Sneag, AB, and Dr. John A. Bendo, MD, using a wedge-shaped pillow will yield the best results.
Angry Cat Stretch
Why it works: It’s not just your lower back that can cause you pain during pregnancy. As your breasts become fuller, added weight in the chest area can pull at your upper spine, creating painful, pinching pressure. The “angry cat stretch,” another movement borrowed from prenatal yoga, relieves upper back tension.
How to do it: Get down on your hands and knees. Keep your back straight. Gently drop your head and round your back (like an angry cat). You will feel this stretch in your upper back. Hold for about 10 seconds and then return to your starting position.
Maternity Support Belt
Why it works: These thick elastic bands worn around the hips and under the belly cradle and support lax abdominal muscles. Especially helpful if your job requires you to stand for long periods of time, wearing a maternity belt can improve posture and decrease lower back pressure. Some women say they can’t get by without one!
Which one to buy: Maternity support belts come in all shapes and sizes. Keep it simple with a single band slung around the hips or choose a model with bust and shoulder straps for all-over back pain relief.
Regular Physical Activity
Why it works: Pregnancy-friendly workouts such as brisk walking, riding a stationary bike, and prenatal aerobics can tone and strengthen the entire body—including the back. Another important reason to exercise: It burns calories. Because packing on excessive pounds during pregnancy contributes to back pain, regular physical activity lets you eat for two while still keeping gradual pregnancy weight gain on track.
How to do it: Be sure workouts always include five- to 10-minute warm-up and cool-down periods. Warming up is especially important during pregnancy because looser joints and tendons are more susceptible to injury. If you are walking, start off at a slow pace to gradually increase blood flow to muscles and prepare ligaments and tendons for the work they are about to do. At the end of your workout, ward off muscle stiffness and soreness by gently stretching back, arm, and leg muscles.