Pregnancy isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be brutal and overwhelming. As if it weren’t weird enough to be growing a person inside of you, that little life also kicks you in the bladder, head-butts your lungs, and makes you want to eat things you’d never eat on a normal day.
Your body changes so much in such a short time that it can be more than a little uncomfortable. There are a few complaints that almost every pregnant woman has: swollen ankles, trouble sleeping, and heartburn. And then there are some complaints that you don’t hear about as often until you’re going through them.
Sciatica is one of those less commonly spoken about pregnancy symptoms. But when you get it, you know it, and it can knock you down. Some women have such severe sciatica that even walking is difficult. And if sleeping while pregnant wasn’t tough enough already, it can be impossible with sciatica. But if you’re hesitant to take steroids or other medications for relief, you’re not the only one.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica is a shooting, burning pain that can radiate from hip to foot. This pain is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve, the large nerve that innervates the lower half of the body. The sciatic nerve runs below the uterus. It can become compressed or irritated by the weight of the baby or by changes in posture due to your growing bump.
Some symptoms of sciatic pain can include:
- occasional or constant pain in one side of your buttocks or leg
- pain along the sciatic nerve path, from the buttocks down the back of your thigh and to the foot
- sharp, shooting, or burning pain
- numbness, pins and needles, or weakness in the affected leg or foot
- difficulty walking, standing, or sitting
When you’re pregnant, you may be tempted to reach for an over-the-counter pain reliever. However, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should only be used as a last resort in pregnancy. Research has linked these drugs to later pregnancy complications, including ductus arteriosus closure and oligohydramnios. While acetaminophen (Tylenol) isn’t as effective, it can provide relief and is considered less risky than NSAIDs.
The good news is that while pregnancy-related sciatica can be painful, it’s usually temporary and can be treated. Here’s a look at some alternative treatments for pregnancy-related sciatica that don’t involve drugs.
Chiropractic care is frequently the first choice for sciatica treatment after acetaminophen. By realigning your vertebrae and putting everything back where it belongs, your chiropractor can reduce compression of your sciatic nerve. No more compression means no more pain! Because your posture is constantly changing, repeat sessions will likely be necessary to maintain proper spinal alignment.
There are few things in life more blissful than a massage. During pregnancy, that bliss reaches a whole new level. And if you have sciatica, massage isn’t only relaxing, but also therapeutic. Rachel Beider, a licensed massage therapist who specializes in prenatal massage and pain management, recommends regular deep tissue massages. She recommends “working on the hip and lower back, as well as using a foam roller or tennis ball to work deeply into the piriformis muscle and glute muscles.”
You’ve probably seen acupuncture on TV and thought one of two things: “I bet that hurts!” or “Where can I have that done?”
Acupuncture is a pain relief treatment rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting tiny needles into your body. Eastern medicine believes that by targeting specific points that correspond with medians or channels, the “qi,” or life-force, is redirected and opened up. This rebalances the flows of energy.
One study suggests that acupuncture treatment may be more effective at relieving sciatica pain than treatment with NSAIDs like ibuprofen. (But remember, avoid taking NSAIDs while pregnant.) Western medical studies have shown that by stimulating particular points on the body, different hormones and neurotransmitters are released. These can help decrease pain and increase nerve and muscle relaxation.
Physical therapy can be anything from osteopathy to exercise therapy and lots of things in between. It can decrease sciatica pain by reducing inflammation, improving blood flow, and realigning joints and muscles. A certified physical therapist can’t only recommend exercises for you to do at home, but will also work with you in person to ensure you perform the movements correctly and safely.
Because of a hormone called relaxin, your ligaments are loose during pregnancy. This allows your pelvic girdle to spread more easily to deliver your baby. Due to because this, it’s essential to consult a professional before trying any new exercises or stretches. Safety first!
Magnesium is a mineral that plays a role in over 300 different reactions in your body. It’s a major component in correct nerve function. Though magnesium is found in many foods, many of us are deficient in it. One animal study suggests magnesium supplementation may improve sciatic nerve regeneration and decrease inflammatory response in mice.
Taking magnesium orally as a supplement or massaging it into your legs in oil or lotion can reduce discomfort from sciatica. It’s extremely important to talk to your doctor before starting any new medications or supplements.
The benefits of yoga for mind and body are well-documented and widely known, so it should come as no surprise that a prenatal yoga practice can relieve sciatic nerve pain. Similar to physical therapy and chiropractic care, yoga can realign your body and relieve nerve compression.
It must be stressed, however, that yoga during pregnancy can be dangerous due to the loosening of your ligaments. So, it’s best to do this with a professional. Try joining a prenatal yoga class, where you can get the extra help and attention you need.
If you’re experiencing a lot of pain, it may be tempting to jump right into these alternative therapies. But it’s important to always consult with your OB-GYN or certified nurse midwife before beginning any new treatments. And remember, the end is in sight: Soon you won’t have an 8-pound passenger riding shotgun on your sciatic nerve. That’s one more thing to look forward to!
Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She’s frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction.