Pregnancy can be an exciting time for expectant mothers, but just as bringing a child into the world opens a lot of new doors, pregnancy can bring about new, sometimes uncomfortable sensations for a mother-to-be. One of the most common complaints during pregnancy is back pain and, specifically, back spasms.
“Pregnancy is like the perfect storm for lower back pains and spasms,” explains Dr. Steve Behram, an OB/GYN based in Rockville, Maryland. “Generally speaking, pregnancy can also make women more vulnerable to generalized muscular spasms anywhere, including the back.”
There are a few different explanations as to why back spasms affect pregnant women. The first reason is perhaps the most obvious: weight gain. Pregnancy can cause women to gain significant weight, especially in the abdominal region of the body. This shifts the woman’s center of gravity and tends to adjust posture.
While back spasms are often harmless irritations, they can also be symptomatic of some additional complications.
“Sometimes the referred pain from uterine contractions is misinterpreted as back pain and back spasms,” Behram says. “Uterine contractions can cause referred pain to the back.”
It is important to determine if your back pain is due to uterine contractions. Uterine contractions can be a sign of premature labor. The University of California, San Francisco recommends that you seek medical assistance if uterine contractions occur six or more times within an hour, with or without additional warning signs. In real labor, contractions get longer, stronger, and closer together. Sometimes, contractions are only felt in the lower back, which means the pain you’re experiencing may be contractions. Time them.
Sciatica, which is pain caused by the sciatic nerve that connects the lower back to each leg through the hips, can also be misdiagnosed as back spasms. Be sure to consult your doctor if your back spasms are accompanied by radiation of pain down one or both legs.
So how does one eliminate back spasms or reduce their frequency? Behram suggests applying heat or ice to the lower back for short durations (under 10 minutes) when you feel spasms.
Relaxation and massage therapies can also be extremely beneficial. “Patients should inquire and be assured that their massage therapist is certified in pregnancy message, and has the appropriate equipment for expectant moms,” suggests Behram. Acupuncture can
Stretches can also soothe back spasms, but expectant mothers should proceed with caution. Behram recommends keeping it simple with some easy leg raises in a reclined position. Over-stretching the back muscles can exacerbate the spasms and lead to even more discomfort.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has been used by physical therapists for years. Laboring women have used TENS as a noninvasive method of managing labor pains. TENS has been found to be a safe and inexpensive treatment for low back pain in late pregnancy. TENS units are available for purchase in one-time use and rechargeable units.
Behram warns against treating back spasms with medication, noting, “Most medications cannot be used safely during pregnancy.”
Thankfully, back spasms during pregnancy are usually just a nuisance and not cause for alarm. Be sure to check with your doctor if the spasms become more frequent or painful.