Sciatica in pregnancy is one of the most common causes of lower back pain in females. In addition to lower back pain, sciatic can cause pain to be felt in the leg, hip, and buttocks as well. Studies estimate between 1 and 17% of women experience sciatica at some point in their pregnancy [1-2].
Sciatica pain can make your pregnancy uncomfortable, especially in the latter stages. So what causes sciatica in pregnancy, and what can you do to relieve or prevent these painful symptoms?
Is it sciatica or something else?
Your doctor or midwife will probably be able to advise if you have sciatica based on your symptoms. Common sciatica symptoms include:
- Shooting pains in the leg, hip, lower back, and rear.
- Tingling or numbness in your leg, ankle, or foot.
- Pain when walking quickly.
- Muscle weakness in the leg.
- Difficulty or pain when bending over.
Sciatica symptoms may be confused with other common pregnancy complaints, such as pelvic girdle pain, leg cramps, or non-specific low back pain. Speak to your midwife about any pains you’re experiencing for advice.
Can sciatica cause difficulty walking during pregnancy?
Yes, sciatica can make it painful to walk when you’re pregnant, especially in the latter stages when walking can be less comfortable anyway.
What causes sciatica in pregnancy?
A trapped nerve resulting from a bulging or herniated disc is the most likely cause of sciatica in pregnant women . Pregnancy can cause or worsen a slipped disc, as your posture changes to accommodate the growing weight of your baby.
If sciatica isn’t caused by a slipped disc, and the pain persists after you give birth, there’s a small chance it could be related to a condition known as osteitis condensans ilii . This is a self-limiting, non-progressive condition affecting the pelvis. Less than 2.5% of people have osteitis condensans ilii .
Is it normal to have a trapped nerve in your back while pregnant?
The position of your baby, extra weight in the abdomen, and increased blood supply can increase the chances of trapping a nerve during pregnancy.
But whether they’re pregnant or not, many people experience a trapped nerve in their back at some point. As you move, relax, and get older, the discs between the bones of the spine become dislodged and even start to break down. When this happens, they can compress the sciatic nerve, causing discomfort in the hip and leg.
Not everyone is aware of their nerve compression unless it causes painful symptoms like sciatica.
How early in pregnancy can you get sciatica?
You can get sciatica as early as your first trimester. Symptoms can start at any point in pregnancy, though it’s more common in the third trimester, thanks to the extra weight you’re carrying and your shifting centre of gravity.
Levels of relaxin (a hormone which helps loosen your joints and ligaments in preparation for birth) increase by up to ten times during pregnancy . So by your third trimester, heightened relaxin levels can lead to back pain and even spine misalignment, contributing to sciatica symptoms.
How to relieve sciatica pain in pregnancy
Sciatica can be painful at a time when you’re already feeling uncomfortable. But there are some things you can do to alleviate sciatica symptoms in pregnancy.
1. Get a diagnosis
First, it’s important to be sure you have sciatica rather than another condition like non-specific low back pain or pelvic girdle pain. Each issue should be treated differently, so diagnosis is essential .
Speak to your midwife or medical team to find out what hospital will do for sciatic pain. If they can’t help, or the pain persists, it may be worth booking an appointment with a private pain management unit that specialises in treating sciatica and other back problems.
Note that an getting an epidural for labour pain isn’t the same as getting an epidural steroid injection for back pain, so you can find out more about the differences in pain relief for labour by speaking to a specialist doctor.
2. Go swimming
Swimming is a safe way to mobilise your joints and stay active in pregnancy. Additionally, the buoyancy of the water can reduce pressure on your sciatic nerve, alleviating pain and reducing stress . Read more about the benefits of swimming for sciatica.
3. Take regular breaks
Don’t stand up for long periods if you can help it. Standing can put additional stress on the sciatic nerve, especially if your posture has shifted thanks to the weight of your baby. Sit down as often as you need to, and wear flat, comfortable shoes.
If you’re exercising throughout pregnancy, make sure to stay within safe limits to avoid herniating a disc. Remember your ligaments and joints are looser while you’re pregnant, so avoid injury by taking regular breaks.
4. Try pregnancy-safe massage and stretches for sciatica
Certain massage techniques for sciatica can reduce pressure on your sciatic nerve. However, not all massage techniques are suitable in pregnancy, so it’s best to seek out a qualified massage therapist who can give you appropriate care and advice.
Some stretches and exercises are also good for giving immediate sciatica pain relief, but, again, not all of them are suitable in pregnancy (depending on how far along you are). Specialist prenatal yoga and Pilates classes can help you learn which sciatica exercises are safe and effective in pregnancy.
See more ways to get sciatica relief in eight minutes.
5. Apply a cold or warm compress
Cold and warm compresses are generally safe to use for up to 20 minutes at a time in pregnancy on the legs, hips, and lower back . Wrap an ice pack or hot water bottle in a towel and apply to the sore areas.
A warm bath can also help soothe sciatica pain in pregnancy.
How to sleep with sciatica pain during pregnancy
Sciatica pain can cause sleep disruption at a time when sleep is very valuable. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep when you have sciatica in pregnancy:
- Sleep on your most comfortable side — Research shows it’s safe to sleep on your left or right side during pregnancy . So consider sleeping on your unaffected side for the most comfort.
- Use pillows to support your body — Place a pillow between your legs, under your waist, or behind your back to relieve pressure.
- Make your bed softer — Use a mattress topper or a spare duvet to create a softer surface for your body.
- Adjust your sleeping position — If sleeping fully on your side puts too much pressure on your hip, put pillows under your back to tip you slightly onto your side.
Looking for more tips? Read our 8 useful tips to help you sleep better with sciatica or check out our tips on how to relieve sciatica pain in bed.
Get private sciatica support in pregnancy
If you’re struggling to carry out your day-to-day activities while pregnant with sciatica, getting extra support from a private healthcare provider may help you better manage the pain. Book an appointment with Harley Street Specialist Hospital to refer yourself to our pain management unit.