Aches and pains are a common part of pregnancy because of the changes your body is going through. Learn how to manage them and when they may indicate a problem.

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Pregnancy leads to changes in almost every part of your body. Your center of gravity shifts, your organs move to accommodate your growing baby, and your muscles and joints become strained. As uncomfortable as they may be, most of these aches and pains are expected parts of pregnancy. But some can indicate a problem.

This article will explore some of the most common body aches you might experience during pregnancy, the types of treatment that can provide some relief, and the types of aches or pains that warrant a call to your doctor.

Back pain is common during pregnancy. In a 2018 study involving 184 pregnant women, 70% of participants reported low back pain, and 43.5% reported generalized back pain. Other common areas for aches and pains included:

Most of these types of pain peak toward the end of pregnancy, in the third trimester. But abdominal and pelvic pain can develop quite early, in the first and second trimesters, as your muscles and ligaments move and stretch to accommodate your growing uterus. This is sometimes called round ligament pain.

Other joint pain may follow as your ligaments relax to support body changes. Muscle cramps and numbness or tingling in different areas of your body may also develop.

Language Matters

You’ll notice we use the binary term “women” in this article. While we realize this term may not match your gender experience, it’s the term used by the researchers whose data was cited. We try to be as specific as possible when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data for or may not have had participants who are transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Hormones aren’t the only things that shift as your baby develops. Mechanical changes in your muscle and ligament structures can change your center of gravity, and weight gain changes the amount of pressure you experience in different areas of your body.

Even your circulatory system can become stressed during pregnancy, leading to issues such as soft tissue pain from fluid retention.

Nerve pain is also common, caused by compression of nerves from weight gain or the pressure of your uterus. The sciatic nerve is often affected in late pregnancy and sometimes even after delivery. In addition to pain, sciatica during pregnancy can cause symptoms such as:

  • muscle weakness
  • loss of functional ability
  • weight gain
  • improper posture

These symptoms are the result of weight gain during pregnancy and the position of your uterus and your growing baby. These changes put pressure on your sciatic nerve, limiting the strength of signals that pass through it. These pains often go away after delivery but may continue into the postpartum period.

Language matters

You’ll notice we use the term “women” in this article. While we realize this term may not match your gender experience, it’s the term used by the researchers whose data we’ve cited. We try to be as specific as possible when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data for or may not have included participants who are transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Treating aches and pains during pregnancy can be a challenge since any medications you take can pose risks to your developing baby. Talk with your doctor before taking any medications during pregnancy, including over-the-counter pain relievers.

About one-quarter of pregnant women in one study experienced debilitating pain at some point during pregnancy.

A 2014 study of more than 500,000 women found that 14% of them filled a prescription for opioid pain medication at least once during their pregnancy and about 6% used prescription opioids in each trimester.

Another 2014 study involving more than 1 million pregnant women found that about 1 in 5 filled an opioid prescription during pregnancy.

Your doctor will weigh your individual risks and benefits when recommending a pain medication. Medications used during pregnancy are categorized by their potential for causing negative effects in the baby.

There is not much research on the use of pain medications in humans during pregnancy, so doctors assume many medications pose a potential risk based on data from animal studies.

Alternative, complementary, and holistic methods of pain management are preferred during pregnancy. This can include early education on the body changes that can occur during pregnancy and on how to build strength to better prepare your body for these changes.

If you have aches and pains during pregnancy and want to avoid medications, the following options may help:

  • stretching
  • yoga
  • massage
  • heat
  • acupuncture
  • breathing techniques
  • meditation

Medication categories in pregnancy

All medications are categorized in terms of their safety during pregnancy. These categories indicate the teratogenic risk — the chances that a medication will cause irregularities in a developing fetus.

Below is an outline and some examples of medications in each category:

  • Category A: Studies show no obvious risk to developing babies with the use of products in this category. Multivitamins are a Category A substance.
  • Category B: These medications have not shown risk to developing babies in animal studies, or they have shown limited evidence of negative effects in human studies. They may pose a limited risk of negative effects in the first trimester and less risk later in pregnancy. Examples include metformin, hydrochlorothiazide, cyclobenzaprine, and amoxicillin.
  • Category C: These medications have been shown to cause developmental irregularities in animal studies, but human studies are rarely performed during pregnancy to match results. Instead, a risk level is assumed based on animal studies or effects in nonpregnant people. NSAIDs and opioids can fall into this category, along with certain antidepressants, anticonvulsants such as gabapentin, and beta-blockers such as metoprolol.
  • Category D: These medications are known to pose a risk of irregularities in a developing fetus, but the benefits for the pregnant person outweigh the risk of negative effects on the fetus. Examples include aspirin, the steroid cortisone, and anticonvulsants such as diazepam and phenytoin.
  • Category X: These medications carry a high risk of fetal irregularities, which outweighs any possible benefits for the pregnant person. These medications are not recommended (contraindicated) during pregnancy. Examples include the migraine medication ergotamine, antidepressants such as paroxetine, and the anticonvulsant valproic acid.
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Not every ache or pain — even common ones such as back pain — is typical during pregnancy. Sometimes, pain may start to develop as expected but progress to a point that it could indicate a problem. Examples include disc problems and even blood pressure complications that can pose a risk to both your and your baby.

Contact your doctor or other healthcare professional if you have aches and pains that limit your ability to carry out everyday tasks or if your pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • a sudden or intense headache that won’t go away
  • severe swelling in your hands or feet
  • dizziness
  • facial swelling
  • vision changes
  • severe belly pain
  • vaginal bleeding
  • nausea or vomiting
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing

These can be symptoms of problems such as preeclampsia, which could be dangerous or even fatal for you or your baby.

Most aches and pains caused by pregnancy will improve on their own in the weeks or months after delivery, once your body returns to its prepregnancy state. Sciatica, for example, may continue after delivery, but it can resolve without treatment after a few months.

If you have ongoing aches and pains that aren’t getting better — or are getting worse — after you have your baby, talk with your doctor. They can check for problems and recommend ways to address your ongoing aches.

Should I take opioid medications for pain during pregnancy?

Opioid medications are sometimes recommended for severe pain during pregnancy. You can work with a healthcare professional to decide whether you should take these medications based on the level of risk to your baby and the amount of pain relief you need.

What over-the-counter pain medications are recommended during pregnancy?

Almost every type of medication poses possible risks to a developing baby. NSAIDs and opioids carry a higher risk, so acetaminophen is commonly used for over-the-counter treatment of aches and pains during pregnancy.

But you should talk with a healthcare professional before using any medications — even acetaminophen. Some studies have suggested that acetaminophen use during pregnancy could be linked to sleep or behavioral problems later in childhood.

What are some red flags that I should call my doctor about pregnancy aches?

If you have aches or pains that come on sharply or suddenly during pregnancy, get progressively worse, or come with other symptoms, such as high blood pressure, bleeding, or fainting, they could signal serious conditions that could cause significant harm to you and your baby.

Aches and pains are so common during pregnancy that they are an expected part of the experience. Most of these discomforts happen as your body relaxes and shifts to make room for your growing baby. But in some cases, pain may be your body’s way of signaling a problem.

Talk with your doctor about any aches, pains, or other symptoms you experience throughout pregnancy. Every pregnancy is different, and every person has their own prepregnancy issues to consider.

Regularly discussing your symptoms with your doctor or other healthcare professional can help you differentiate normal aches from serious ones and contribute to a safe and healthy pregnancy.