Pregnancy-Related Low Back Pain
A long-standing debate in pregnancy care is whether low back pain (LBP) is an inevitable process. Should it be resolved spontaneously, or can it be prevented? This article reviews the clinical presentation and practical treatment and management strategies of LBP during pregnancy for patients.
Background Into Pregnancy-Related Low Back Pain
LBP and posterior pelvic pain (PPP) were previously considered the same. Past research grouped these two conditions under a classification of “LBP.” However, they have recently been discretely described-and-measured. It is now evident that they require individual consideration for diagnosis and management.
LBP represents a common pathophysiological process of pregnancy with a 9-month prevalence rate of approximately 50%. Despite an abundance of literature, LBP during pregnancy remains poorly understood. Current treatments are often ineffective. This leaves physicians perplexed about how to manage patient symptoms.
It is thought that nothing can be done to alleviate these problems. This besides completing the pregnancy, and to simply allow these symptoms to resolve spontaneously. But with careful diagnosis, appropriate treatment is possible.
Low back pain (LBP) during pregnancy is characterized by the time of greatest pain intensity, and location of the pain. The features of pregnancy-related LBP compared to non-pregnancy LBP differ. Compared to 23.6% of the general population that endures severe LBP, one-third of all pregnant women describe severe LBP sometime during their pregnancy. Mantle et al indicated the 2nd and early-3rd trimesters are the periods when backache is most prevalent. Several studies also reported that the evening hours were apparently more painful than the rest of the day. Approximately 67% of pregnant women suffer from night discomfort or backache and 36% have night backache so severe it wakes them from sleep.
Importance Of Identifying Pattern
The pattern of pain intensity or location is crucial in determining the origin of back pain. Ostgaard et al differentiated LBP into pain originating from the posterior pelvic region – PP (distal and lateral to L5) or lower lumbar area (LP). PPP occurs 2 to 4 times more frequently than the lumbar type, as reported. PPP has been directly correlated to pain intensity and sick leave, and hence is believed to be more incapacitating. This is unlike LP. While women with LP pains typically remains constant throughout pregnancy, the prevalence of PPP increases during the middle and late stages of pregnancy.
Assessments of low back pain (LBP) during pregnancy include the visual analogue scale and body charts/pain diagrams but they may be inadequate in distinguishing between lumbar and posterior pelvic pain. The neurological examination usually is unremarkable for both types of pain with negative dural tension signs including the straight leg raise.
The lumbar pain (LP) during pregnancy is similar to the clinical presentation of patients without pregnancy and is relatively easier to diagnose than pelvic pain (PPP). LP tends to be more chronic and intense postpartum. Pain on palpation of paraspinal muscles, hypomobility and weakness in the back signifies muscle insufficiency in the lumbar spine. There could also be a decreased range of motion of the lumbar spine, with pain reproduced on lumbar flexion.
PPP typically presents itself differently from LP. It tends to be acute, pregnancy-induced, and uncommon among the non-pregnant population. With no additional trauma or stain, mild PPP generally resolves 3 months postpartum. Clinically, patients present with backache and a “deep, boring, ill-defined pain that is poorly localized” and radiates down the posterolateral thigh as far as the calf. Sturesson et al suggested that the large innervation of the sacroiliac joint (L4-S1) contributes to the referred pain experienced by pregnant women. While there are numerous tests for assessing sacroiliac joint pathology, research has indicated 3 tests with superior sensitivity and efficacy; “Patrick’s Fabere test, Menell’s test, and the Posterior Pelvic Pain Provocation test.”
Pregnancy-related low back pain (LBP) can be defined as any type of idiopathic pain that arises between the 12th rib and the gluteal folds during the course of the pregnancy. This does not include a situation in which the pain is attributed to a specific pathological condition. An example of this is a disk herniation that arises either before or during the pregnancy. It is important to consider other disease pathologies that mimic the symptoms of “primary” LBP associated with pregnancy. An incomplete list of other disease pathologies includes:
- Spontaneous abortion
- Urinary tract infections
- Ankylosing spondylitis
Careful Differentiation of LBP
As previously stated, LBP with radiation into the buttocks and legs is a common problem during pregnancy. However, LBP must be carefully differentiated from radicular and other neurologic symptoms. True sciatica is not commonly diagnosed among pregnant women. Posterior facet syndrome can present with pain radiation down the posterior thigh and mimic radicular pain. Another type of radiculopathy, meralgia paresthetica, follows the distribution of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve and may be confused with referred pain symptoms experienced with LBP. Meralgia paresthetica is associated with severe pain, numbness, tingling, hypesthesia, or a burning sensation down the anterolateral aspect of the thigh.
Common treatment interventions for low back pain (LBP) include physiotherapy and exercises.
Ostgaard et al studied the relationship between sick leave and prepartum back education and training classes. They found a 12% decrease in sick leave time among pregnant women enrolled in an individualized back education and training program for both PPP and LP pain types.
The physiotherapy routine should be designed and monitored by women’s health physiotherapists, or health care providers who specialise in women’s health. This is because, improper management of special populations, such as expectant women with PPP, may lead to worsening of the condition. For example, PPP sufferers should refrain from stair climbing, standing on one leg, extreme motion at the hips and back, and other positions that overload the pelvis. Those who present with both lumbar and posterior pelvic pain symptoms should avoid back-strengthening exercises until the posterior pelvic symptoms resolve. These symptoms may worsen, if lumbar strengthening exercises are performed.
In addition to physiotherapy, exercises to alleviate mild LBP may include walking, swimming, or bicycling at low to moderate intensities. Deep abdominal toning can also help. This generates less stress on back muscles, but abdominal crunches and straight leg raises are contraindicated. It also should be noted that the goal of exercise during pregnancy is to improve or maintain muscle tone and not to control weight gain or to correct posture. Contraindications to exercise during pregnancy include hypertension, diabetes mellitus, history of premature labour, placenta previa, and threatened abortion.
Other Supplemental Therapies
Other supplemental therapies also are available for women with pelvic pain and may diminish the need for medications. Berg et al reported 71% of patients that suffered from severe LBP experienced some relief with a trochanteric belt, which provides support to the pelvic girdle, but this belt may compress the abdomen and cause discomfort. Sacroiliac belts, in contrast, do not compress the abdomen and 82% of women with posterior pelvic pain reported some pain relief with these belts.
Prevention of low back pain (LBP) is often associated with how one manages her pregnancy during this period. Maximum working capacity is expected in some career environments during pregnancy. Ignoring the additional responsibility of pregnancy by employers or the employees themselves only exacerbates the symptoms. Pain intensity during pregnancy has been positively associated with the duration of pain postpartum. Women who did not take breaks at work report experiencing back pain symptoms 6 years postpartum. Wergeland and Strand found that women felt more at ease during pregnancy if they controlled their own work pace.
Prepartum physiotherapy management and exercises are considered components of LBP prevention. Physically fit women appear to have a reduced risk of developing LP and PPP during pregnancy. Exercise regimens as little as 45 total minutes per week have been correlated with reduced lumbar pain symptoms. Expectant women with a history of PPP and/or LP felt more positive and less fearful of their pregnancy when they know that help and support are available from qualified physiotherapists in the event when symptoms flare up.
Pregnancy is – to many – a fragile time of a woman’s life. Health care providers use special precautionary measures to ensure the health of the growing fetus and the mother. For this reason, they are often hesitant to address the symptoms of low back pain (LBP), which are widespread and often debilitating. But if unaddressed, these symptoms can persist during pregnancy and severely affect the lifestyle and health of the patient postpartum. It is therefore vital that health care providers and patients understand the underlying issues of LBP, including appropriate prevention and treatment options, to allow for a pain-free and stress-free pregnancy.
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- Sturesson B, Uden G, Uden A. Pain pattern in pregnancy and “catching” of the leg in pregnant women with posterior pelvic pain. Spine. 1997; 22:1880-1883.
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