How To Deal With Discomfort in Pregnancy:
Discomfort due to pregnancy is one of the most common reasons clients join our prenatal yoga classes. Most are dealing with some combination of back ache, pelvic pain, leg cramps, sore wrists, and more.
Pregnancy is taxing!
Most clients do find relief in our classes, often after just one session, but the how and why of pregnancy pain relief is worth a closer look. Our primary goal as prenatal wellness professionals is to empower our clients, and we feel that those superficial “Do These Stretches For Pregnancy Pain Relief” lists do not serve that goal. We want you to better understand your body so you aren’t forced to rely on incomplete, incorrect, or misconstrued information that might be good for clicks and shares, but doesn’t ultimately serve your well-being.
So, Where Should You Start?
First and most importantly, discuss any discomfort with your doctor or midwife. While most aches and pains do not indicate a serious medical issue, it is critical to rule that out, and your doctor or midwife is the right professional to see.
Once you’ve had that discussion and your care provider is confident you’re only dealing with the common physical discomforts of pregnancy, the next professional you might visit is us! Our classes are frequently recommended by OBs and midwives for this exact reason.
Why does it make such a difference?
We wish there were an easy answer. Specialists often refer to pain as a biopyschosocial experience, meaning it has physical, mental, emotional, as well as cultural and environmental catalysts. There is no single reason people have pain, pregnant or not, and while exercise as a treatment for pain is strongly supported by research, there is definitely not one easy stretch, posture change, or strengthening exercise that will work for everyone. Despite what influencers, bloggers, and even some prenatal fitness pros say, it’s just not as simple as back pain + stretching = relief. Those all too common lists of tips and tricks are very misleading.
Exercise for prenatal pain can be more or less effective for many reasons. Each pregnancy, person, life, and environment are different, so it only makes sense that what works for one person might not work for everyone. Here is a list of common factors that affect how well exercise works to treat pain (but there are many more—this list is not exhaustive):
- Your beliefs about pain. Are you optimistic about healing?
- Your beliefs about your body. Do you trust its resilience?
- Your beliefs about the safety and effectiveness of exercise
- Whether you enjoy the exercise
- If you used the services of a wellness/fitness pro, were they affirming of your experience? Did they listen and treat you respectfully?
- Do you have adequate familial & social support?
- Are you overly-stressed?
- Are you getting quality sleep?
- What are your usual exercise habits?
- How is your overall health?
As you can see, these factors are wide-ranging, personal, and nearly impossible to effectively address in simple blog post.
Don’t get us wrong—exercise does have a therapeutic effect on the body itself, but we cannot isolate our bodies from the broader context of our lives. Your body is your mind and your mind is your body. You cannot compartmentalize them. You and another person could do the same exercise to treat the same pregnancy discomfort, yet if you’ve not been sleeping soundly or have ongoing excess stress, you might not respond as well. If you’ve been told, and believe, that exercise is unsafe for pregnancy (unfortunately still a persistent old wives’ tale), you’re less likely to experience healing from it. If you worked with a trainer but they weren’t in tune with you, you’re less likely to benefit from the exercises they teach, even if those exercises are the “right” ones.
It is therefore misleading for fitness and wellness pros to make direct connections between pain reduction and the specific exercises they offer without looking at the big picture. There is just so much more going on when we experience pain than the achey tissue itself, and we will be better served if we appreciate that complexity.
What Do We Suggest For Dealing With Discomfort in Pregnancy?
We suggest a holistic approach—one that addresses the totality of your life, not just the specific area of your physical body that is uncomfortable. But we know that’s challenging! It is not lost on us that asking you to move more, sleep better, and reduce stress and anxiety during pregnancy is a big ask. Pregnancy just so happens to make all those things more difficult. If pain is a biopsychosocial experience, it’s no coincidence that pregnancy, often the most profound biopsychosocial change of one’s life, is synonymous with discomfort.
Fortunately, taking prenatal yoga classes from a knowledgeable instructor makes it easier to put that holistic approach into action. Yoga can effectively reduce pregnancy discomfort, not because of any one specific exercise that we teach, but because we address our clients’ needs as whole person, not just as a bag of achey muscles. In fact, there is research that indicates yoga is a more effective treatment for the common discomforts of pregnancy than walking or other exercise. This is because we nourish the body with physical exercise, but also prioritize elements such as relaxation and mindfulness that can help address the other components of the biopsychosocial model of pain.
Being mindful of activities or positions that contribute to discomfort and adjusting your behavior accordingly may also help. If your hips or back aches while you sleep, try a pregnancy support pillow. If sitting for hours at work bothers your back, try swapping your chair for a birth ball that will allow for different postures and movement throughout the day. Avoiding triggers can help reduce pain, but also, looking at the bigger picture, it can affect how pervasive our negative thoughts become. Fewer instances of acute pain may mean less catastrophizing, which may in turn lead to better outcomes.
Some use passive interventions—therapies done to you instead of ones you do to yourself—to reduce pain symptoms in pregnancy. These are things like massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, heating pads, pregnancy support belts, and more. If these options appeal to you, give them a try, assuming you’ve checked first with your doctor or midwife. Many claims made about these interventions are not been substantiated through research, but anecdotally many women report improved symptoms after using them. Perhaps it is less about the specific treatments, but more about the benefits of investing in your care and how that affects your perception of suffering.
We also suggest surrounding yourself with positive messages about your innate strength and resilience. When we believe our bodies are weak and fragile, we can make our experience of pain worse and hinder the effectiveness of treatments. Daily positive affirmations might be helpful. Perhaps read empowering stories about pregnancy or leave notes about your strength on your bathroom mirror.
However, we want to emphasize that your pain is not “only in your head,”, nor is it your fault. Don’t take it so far as to shame yourself for not being able to overcome your pain by sheer willpower—that will likely make it worse. Remember, discomfort is complex! But, research indicates positive thinking and reinforcement can make a real difference, so it’s worth exploring how you might use that to your advantage.
When you read the title “How to address discomfort in pregnancy,” you may have been expecting a list of simple stretches or quick fixes. We don’t blame you—those lists are everywhere, and very appealing! But unfortunately, a list of tips and tricks could never fully address the complexity of your experience with pain, especially during pregnancy. We don’t want to sell you short.
However, if we were to make a list, it would look something like this:
- Move your body daily in ways that you enjoy
- Make time for dedicated rest and self-care
- Think positively about your body and its abilities
So simple yet so complex!
In most pregnancies, there will be at least some discomfort no matter what you do. Realistic expectations are important. Growing a human is a big job, and while our bodies are fine-tuned to do it, adapting to these huge physical, mental, emotional, and social changes is not without challenge. But, we believe in the strength of pregnant women, and want to empower you with helpful, evidence-based information, which is what we’ve endeavored to do here. Please let us know if we can answer any of your questions, and of course, we’d love to have you in class! Check our website, social media, or send us an email.