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During the third trimester of pregnancy, the baby descends down the birth canal. This may cause a pregnant person to experience shooting or lightning-like pain. This can mean labor is near, though not always.

At a party I once attended, one of my pregnant friends suddenly stood up from the table and stretched her arms above her head.

“Ugh,” she said, rubbing her side. “This kid is killing me. It’s like these shooting pains down there. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Boy, did I know what she was talking about.

I’ve never been one to have a comfortable pregnancy. Grateful as I am to have experienced pregnancy and grow our family, I’ve always struggled with the physical demands of pregnancy.

One of those demands definitely is the aches and pains that come along with growing a human being in your body, so let’s take a look at pain “down there.” It’s actually not crotch pain due to lightning.

It’s important to learn what causes it, when you should be concerned, how to stay comfortable, and when it’s a sign that you should head to the hospital.

Symptoms of lightning pain

Like my friend, I experienced a lot of pain down there and it can be confusing to know what’s happening exactly.

Is it normal? Is the pain a sign that you should be worried? There are a lot of questions that go through a pregnant woman’s mind other than, “I wonder if there’s any ice cream left?”

Lightning pain might actually feel like what it sounds like: lightning shooting in your pelvic area.

It almost feels like a little “zing” of pain, especially when you move or shift or feel the baby move or shift. It can come and go and might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Causes of lightning pain

Lightning pain is caused by the pressure and position of the baby as they descend into the birth canal to get ready for delivery.

The good news is lightning pain means you are getting closer to delivery day. The bad news is that lightning can happen for weeks before you actually go into labor.

With my second daughter, I had so much pain and pressure I felt like I was constantly walking around with a bowling ball between my legs. At that point, I was a good month before delivery.

Babies can change positions, but the lightning pain typically has two main causes:

  • the actual pressure of the baby’s head on your cervix
  • the baby putting pressure on nerve endings around your pelvis

Is lightning pain serious?

Most of the time, lightning pain isn’t serious, especially if it’s not interfering with your daily activities and isn’t accompanied by any other symptoms.

If you’re having pain or any other symptoms such as fever, increased or abnormal discharge, bleeding, or fluid leaking, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Be especially cautious if you’re under 37 weeks in your pregnancy.

5 tips for relieving the pain

There are a few ways you can help reduce your pain during pregnancy.

Stay active

It might sound counterproductive, but staying active will help a lot during your pregnancy.

Not only will it help ward off any excess pounds that might make you more uncomfortable, but it will help keep your joints open and flexible, which is important as they take on a heavier workload from your growing baby.

Focus on a mixture of cardio, weight training, and lots and lots of stretching, especially in the hip area. Get more tips on exercising in your third trimester.

Change up your workload

A large Norwegian study from 1995 found an increased prevalence of pelvic and lower back pain in pregnant women who performed physical jobs that involved a lot of twisting and bending or lifting.

A more recent study from Jordan in 2018 noted that long working hours were also associated with back pain in pregnant women.

If your job involves a lot of manual, hands-on labor or long hours, and you find yourself frequently in pain, consider talking to your boss.

See if you can take a reduced workload or do some temporary relocating to help you get through the rest of your pregnancy more comfortably.

Try a pregnancy massage

I had a lot of trouble with pain in my pregnancies. My massage therapist would apply counter-pressure to my back and sacral area, which helped ease some of those sore muscles that were pulling on the nerves around my hips. Relaxing those muscles really helped reduce the pain.

Just keep swimming

Sometimes, unfortunately, there really isn’t a lot you can do about the lightning pain. Your baby’s head and your cervix may be stuck together like glue.

I found that swimming a lot in the last weeks of pregnancy really made a difference, to just take some of the pressure off my poor body.

Wear a support brace

There are many different types of supportive garments and braces for pregnant women, but their function is usually the same. They help lift and support your belly to take some of that pressure off of your hips, joints, and yes, even cervix.

I used a BLANQI support tank top for my larger-than-life last pregnancy (I had polyhydramnios, so I was literally huge) and it made a big difference in my comfort and pain level.

Pain as a sign of labor

In some women, lightning pain is the first sign that they’re in labor. Some women can even feel their cervix as it dilates.

If you’re experiencing lightning pain and have any other symptoms like regular contractions, consistent backache, or any leaking of fluid, you might be in labor.

If you experience any of these symptoms and are under 37 weeks, be sure to seek medical treatment right away.

The takeaway

In general, lightning pain is a normal part of pregnancy and nothing to be too worried about.

If you’re concerned about your pain or it’s disrupting your day-to-day life, be sure to ask your doctor the following questions at your next checkup to rule out any other reasons for your pain.

  • Will I need to be checked for dilation?
  • Are there any signs of an infection?
  • Can you tell if my baby is in the right position?
  • Can you recommend some safe exercises I can do to help my baby get in the best position and help me be comfortable?

If everything checks out and you’re still experiencing lightning pain, you may actually want to congratulate yourself because your body is giving you a pretty clear sign that it’s getting ready to bring your baby into the world.

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse with experience in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and is the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”