You’ve just stepped into your fav pair of cashmere joggers when, all of a sudden, you feel a shooting pain in your lower back and legs. You call your OB/GYN and find out that you’re experiencing something called sciatic nerve pain. WTF, this wasn’t in any of the pregnancy books. What’s going on?
Don’t worry, babe. We’ve got the answers to all of your questions and more below.
What Is Sciatica Pain?
Sciatic nerve pain, or sciatica, affects approximately 1% of pregnant women. (When we talk about being in the 1%, this isn’t exactly the kind we were hoping for.)
While it can be alarming and uncomfortable, this type of lower back pain usually doesn’t last for long periods of time, and it can definitely be managed with treatments like chiropractic care and over-the-counter meds.
Picture that diagram of the nervous system you had to study in sophomore year anatomy class. Running from your lower back and lower spine through the backs of your legs all the way down to your compression sock-clad ankles is the sciatic nerve.
Something — your expanding uterus, pregnancy weight gain, or even your new babe’s noggin — is putting pressure on that nerve and causing this irritating new pain.
So how can you be sure that you’re experiencing sciatica and not another type of back pain? Don’t sweat, mama: We’ll walk you through all of the symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms of Sciatica?
It’s natural to experience all sorts of aches and pains while pregnant. Your body is busy making room for a new little human, and everything (including your internal organs) is getting moved around. By the time you reach the third trimester, you’re practically an expert in back pain.
So how is sciatica any different?
The difference between typical pregnancy back pain and sciatica is the type of pain and the direction it moves in. Sciatica starts in your lower back and moves through your booty and the back of your legs, following the sciatic nerve pathway.
It’s often described as a radiating or shooting pain and can reach down to the back of your calves. This radiating characteristic is the hallmark of sciatica. It will likely clue you in that something else is going on here besides normal pregnancy back pain.
You may also experience numbness or tingling in the affected leg or feel the pain worsen when you sneeze or cough. Most of the time, only one side of your body is affected, although this is not always the case.
Other, less common symptoms of sciatica include:
- Pins and needles in your feet or toes
- Weakness in your butt, legs, or feet
- Loss of bladder control
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, be sure to contact your OB/GYN. They will be able to diagnose you and provide suggestions to help ease your pain.
What Causes Sciatica?
We talked about how sciatica in pregnancy is typically caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. But this isn’t the full story. Oftentimes, this pressure is caused by your own spine. (Talk about betrayal.)
During pregnancy, your body releases hormones to prepare your pelvis and ligaments for birth. One of these hormones is called “relaxin,” and it does exactly what you think: It relaxes and loosens the ligaments around your pelvis. Think of it as a glass of wine for your ligaments. Cheers to giving birth in just a few weeks!
Unfortunately, this shifting around and relaxing can alter your center of gravity and put new pressure on your spine and sciatic nerve. This pressure may pinch the nerve and cause symptoms like numbness, tingling, or pain.
So while the ultimate cause of those super fun shooting pains is pressure on the sciatic nerve, this pressure can be caused by a variety of things. You can blame your (beautiful) changing body structure, baby’s position, or natural pregnancy weight gain.
Sciatica doesn’t just occur during pregnancy. It can happen to anyone (even people who don’t have a uterus) if something is pinching the sciatic nerve. Outside of pregnancy, this can be caused by a herniated disk or a bone spur. In extremely rare cases, it may be a tumor or damage due to diabetes.
Risk factors for sciatica include:
- Diabetes: this condition can increase your risk of nerve damage.
- Obesity: weight gain can cause increased pressure on the spine and sciatic nerve.
- Age: herniated disks and other age-related spinal changes are often the culprits for sciatica.
No matter the specific cause of sciatica, it’s important to treat yourself with kindness. You are growing a new person, and your job right now is to listen to your body and take care of yourself. And if that includes complaining at brunch to your girlfriends, taking lots of bubble baths, and re-watching your comfort show, then that’s what the doctor ordered.
When Does Sciatica Start in Pregnancy?
Sciatica can occur anytime during pregnancy, but most mamas-to-be experience it in the third trimester. It makes sense, right? You’ve just leveled up to your third-trimester maternity dresses, you feel ready to pop, and your spine is being smushed to the max.
But just like this magical time in your life, sciatica won’t last forever. Once baby arrives, most of the pressure in your body will dissipate.
In some cases, a woman may develop sciatica during the postpartum period due to giving birth. But even in this case, it won’t last forever. Even still, can new moms catch any breaks??
What Should I Do if I Think I Have Sciatica?
If you’re experiencing any of the signs or symptoms we’ve discussed, you should call your OB/GYN first. They will be able to diagnose you and provide suggestions to help manage your symptoms.
Most of the time, sciatica can be managed with at-home remedies, but in some cases, your doctor may provide you with prescription pain relief to help manage the pain. They will be able to help you tackle this in a way that is safe for both you and incoming baby.
In the meantime, we have some suggestions to help you feel your best even when back and leg pain are kicking you in the booty.
Apply Heat and Cold
Katy Perry might not be a doctor, but her lyrics “You’re hot then you’re cold” are totally applicable here.
If you’ve ever taken a hot bath to deal with nasty period cramps, then you know the magic that heat can work on sore or tight muscles. Just like when dealing with your period (no nostalgia there), applying a hot compress, taking a warm bath, or using a heating pad can help you self-soothe and relax while experiencing sciatica.
On the other hand, a cold pack on your back and around your hips may feel soothing as well. Some women even like taking ice baths to numb painful or sore regions such as the lower back. Every woman is different, and the important thing is to listen to your body and do what feels right for you.
Sudden movement, like sneezing or coughing, can often make sciatica worse. But incorporating gentle movement when possible can help you feel more like your normal self. Putting a prenatal yoga class on the calendar or adding a light walk into your day is a good way to get that movement without pushing yourself too far.
Stiff or tight muscles are sure to make any back pains worse, so any gentle exercise that allows you to stretch out and move those muscles a bit is a good idea. Just be sure not to push yourself too hard.
The safest way to incorporate movement into your routine while dealing with sciatica is to…
When To See a Healthcare Professional
While you should totally talk to your OB/GYN about any symptoms of sciatica, you might also consider seeing a physical therapist. They will be able to recommend specific exercises and stretches to help relax tight muscles and manage the pain.
Plus, a physical therapist will know exactly how far to push without making your pain worse. And your OB/GYN will likely be able to help you find a physical therapist in your area. Be sure to ask for recommendations at your next appointment. Besides physical therapy, some pregnant women include acupuncture in their wellness routine.
You can also ask if they have suggestions for specific tools like heating pads, cooling packs, or pregnancy pillows to help you manage symptoms at home.
Becoming a new mama is a joyful and exciting experience, but it can also be stressful. As if losing your favorite pair of pre-pregnancy skinny jeans for nine months wasn’t hard enough, now you have to worry about your spine compressing your sciatic nerve? Um, no, thank you!
Join the Club
Just like most pregnancy symptoms (and uninvited guests to your baby shower), sciatica is temporary and can be managed. And you are definitely not alone. Sciatica affects women all over the world, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of — it’s just another side effect of growing a tiny person in your body.
So take a deep breath, put on your favorite outfit, crank up the tunes, and remember… you got this.