I’ve finally made it to the home stretch of my first pregnancy. Third trimester! Woohoo!
My first trimester was no picnic. My second trimester was awesome. And so far, my third trimester isn’t too bad either.
Maybe one little complaint: I’m so tired. And I’m so sore. My back hurts- oh boy does my back hurt. My feet hurt. My body is just worn out. Okay, that’s more than one complaint, but you can probably put it all together into one package complaint.
If you’re in the same boat as I am, and you probably are considering 50 to 70 percent of pregnant women experience at least some back pain, you may be wondering how to get some relief. Normally, I would pop a few Tylenol or soak in a nice hot bubble bath and let my cares melt away. But as I’ve discovered throughout my pregnancy, most normal remedies aren’t always the safest for baby.
Well, how about a nice soothing heating pad? Are they safe to use while pregnant?
Yes, they are, if they’re used properly.
What causes pregnancy aches and pains?
There are a lot of factors contributing to the aches and pains of pregnancy, more specifically back pains:
- Hormones. It always comes back to hormones, doesn’t it? All the symptoms. Well, in this case, your body is producing hormones that soften your ligaments and loosen your joints in preparation for delivery. Consequently, your back isn’t as well-supported, which can lead to pain.
- Shifting center of gravity. As baby grows, so does your uterus. It may make for a cute baby bump, but it also changes your center of gravity, which throws off your posture and your walking gait. To avoid falling over, pregnant women tend to lean back, which can strain lower back muscles, leading to pain.
- Additional weight. Normal pregnancy weight gain is between 25 and 35 pounds. That’s a lot of extra weight for your back to support. Is it any wonder that it gets cranky and sore?
- Stress. Preparing for a baby is stressful! At least for me it is. I put off all baby prep until I was done my most recent semester at school, which gives me less than three months to buy what I need and set everything up for baby. It seems a monumental task, especially since I’m so tired! Stress usually accumulates in weak areas of the body, and what with all those hormones, shifting center of gravity, and additional weight, your weakest point seems to be your poor back.
Leg cramps are also a big issue during pregnancy. While no one is sure what the exact cause is, leg cramps during pregnancy may increase because of the extra weight or dehydration. Whatever the cause, they are incredibly painful. I’ve always had problems with leg cramps, but they seemed especially worse during my pregnancy.
I once heard a joke about a man who said leg cramps were worse than labour. In the joke his wife beat him senseless for such a stupid remark, but I’m inclined to agree with him.
Seriously. I cannot yet fathom anything more painful. Go ahead a laugh at my naivety if you want. I’ll find out soon enough, I guess.
How heat works to soothe pain.
Applying heat to sore muscles helps ease pain a couple of different ways.
Firstly, heat will dilate the blood vessels of the muscles, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients. This helps heals damaged muscles.
Secondly, heat stimulates the sensory receptors in the skin, which decreases the transmissions of pain signals to the brain, partially relieving discomfort. Finally, applying heat facilitates stretching the soft tissue- muscles, tendons, and ligaments- around the spine. As a result, there will be a decrease in stiffness and injury, and an increase in flexibility.
How to use a heating pad safely.
Heat therapy is a tried and true method for easing aches and pains and a heating pad is a safe way to apply heat to sore muscles. Unlike a hot bath, a heating pad won’t raise the core temperature of your body, which can increase the risk of certain birth defects and miscarriage. But a heating pad is only safe if it is used properly. Here’s how to do it:
- Only wear the pad for a short period of time. Don’t use a heating pad in one area for longer than 20 minutes, maximum. Keeping heat on for longer can lead to skin burns. Many electric heating pads come with a timer that will automatically turn off the heat. But if you’re using one without, or some other sort of heating device- microwavable, hot water bottle, etc.- be sure to set your own timer, especially if you’re tired and in danger of falling asleep.
- Use the lower temperature settings. Start on the lowest setting and, if needed, move up from there. Never use the highest setting though as it can cause skin burns or increase your body temperature too much.
- Do not apply heating pad directly to your skin. Wrap the device in a thin towel, or use it over your clothing. Again, applying it directly to your skin can lead to burns. You’ve got enough pain to deal with, don’t add burns to your list.
- Use on a localized area. Don’t use a heating pad over large areas of your body. Don’t use more than one heating pad. It’s not good for your skin or your body temperature. Just use one at a time on your back, leg, or shoulder and then move on.
- Do not use on your abdomen. While it’s safe to use a heating pad on your joints, hips, back, legs, etc., avoid using one on your abdomen as it can raise your body temperature too much and can mask serious problems associated with abdominal pregnancy pain.
- Don’t fall asleep while using a heating pad. This is especially important if you’re using an electric heating pad that doesn’t have an automatic shut-off timer. Hot water bottles and microwaved rice pads usually only last about half an hour anyway, so there’s not too much danger there if you do fall asleep, but better safe than sorry. Set a timer- a loud one- and avoid using a heating pad while in bed where the likelihood of falling asleep is greater.
- Do not use heating pad with any liniment, salve, or ointment. Many of these have heat-producing ingredients and burns may result.
Alternatives to heating pads.
If you’re not cool with the idea of using a heating pad (see what I did there. I’m so funny), here are some other ways to try to prevent or alleviate your pregnancy aches and pains:
- Practice good posture. To combat the effects of your shifting center of gravity and its effects on your back, try to maintain good posture by standing up straight and tall, holding your chest high, and keeping your shoulders back and relaxed. Avoid locking your knees. Use a wide stance while standing and if you have to stand for a long time, rest one foot on a low step stool. When sitting, choose a chair that supports your back, or place a small pillow behind your lower back.
- Wear the right shoes. You should wear low-heeled shoes with good arch support, as opposed to flat shoes. Avoid high heels which can shift your center of gravity even more. We have a guide with lots of great choices for your pregnant feet.
- Lift properly. While there’s no hard and fast rule about how much you should or shouldn’t lift while pregnant, it’s a good idea to avoid lifting anything more than 30 pounds. Even for lifting small objects, be sure that you lift correctly. Squat down and lift with your legs. Don’t bend at the waist of lift with your back. Know your limits and ask for help when needed. My brother in law recently said he always knew where my sister had been in the house because there was a trail of stuff she had dropped that she hadn’t bothered to pick up because it was too much effort.
- Wear a pregnancy support belt. These are specially meant to support your back during pregnancy and can do a lot to avoid those pains in the first place. Read our guide and see our recommendations here.
- Sleep on your side. The best sleep position while pregnant is on your left side. Keep one or both knees bent and try using pregnancy or support pillows between your knees, under your abdomen, and behind your back. You can also try a pregnancy pillow for some extra support and help getting comfortable to sleep.
- Exercise. My husband’s favorite suggestion for a cure to pregnancy woes. Physical activity helps keep your back strong, potentially helping to prevent back pain.
- Schedule an appointment with a chiropractor, massage therapist, or acupuncturist. Any of these can provide some degree of relief. However, be sure to check with your primary healthcare provider before scheduling an appointment. Also, always disclose that you’re are pregnant before receiving treatment.
- Medication. Talk to your doctor about taking Tylenol or other medication to ease soreness.
When to call the doctor.
It’s not uncommon to have back pain, as well as other aches and muscles pains during pregnancy. But there comes a point when pain goes from being ordinary to being dangerous. Call your doctor if:
- You have severe back pain that lasts more than two weeks.
- You experience back pain or abdominal pain that is accompanied by spotting or bleeding, chills, vaginal discharge, light-headedness, pain or discomfort while urinating, or nausea and vomiting.
These could indicate serious conditions, such as preterm labour or a urinary tract infection.