Dealing with the physical discomforts of pregnancy

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Pregnant woman with discomfort lying on couch

What to Know

  • Pregnancy changes your tissue, musculo-skeletal system, and circulation which can cause discomfort
  • Some pregnancy discomforts – especially those related to swelling and prenatal weight gain – can be helped by using products that offer extra support
  • Many types of prenatal exercise, if your doctor says they are ok, can help with discomfort

During pregnancy, your body goes through some pretty significant changes that can cause discomfort, strain and even injury.

Early on, breasts enlarge and often become swollen and uncomfortable in a way that is similar to premenstrual breast discomfort. Meanwhile, the lower back curves inward to compensate for the change in your center of gravity due to the extra weight of your breasts and uterus in front of the body. This musculo-skeletal change can strain and weaken your back.

In addition, the extra weight in the upper body impairs circulation in the lower extremities, resulting in swelling of the feet and legs. Adding to all these shifts, pregnancy hormones cause parts of your body to become bigger and swollen resulting in extra pressure and discomforts in muscles, joints, tissue, specific nerves, and ligaments.

But don’t despair! There are a number of ways to minimize and manage these side effects of pregnancy.

Certain products may help alleviate aches and pains and offer another layer of support against the forces of gravity.

Exercise can help reduce the discomfort of some of these physical changes and also offer many health benefits. Check with your healthcare provider before doing prenatal exercise and stretching, especially if you are experiencing any discomfort. Your provider may recommend modified prenatal exercise or other ways to manage your discomfort. See Go-to exercises during pregnancy and The 4 Ws of exercising during pregnancy: Why, what, when and where for more about exercising.

And if these discomforts are preventing you from getting your much needed rest, read How can I deal with pregnancy discomforts affecting my sleep? for tips.

What to Do

Wear a well-fitting bra that offers extra support to help with breast pain

The best way to manage enlarged, swollen, painful breasts is to wear a supportive bra. Find a maternity store that employs certified bra fitters –these experts can ensure you are matched with the right bra. For sports bras, check maternity stores or you can often find a good fit at general retailers. Some women find that wearing two sports bras offers extra support needed for exercises such as running.

If you are experiencing sciatica, try a support belt or ask your healthcare provider about exercises

Sciatica, or sciatic nerve discomfort, can be caused by pressure from musculo-skeletal changes involving the lower back and/or pelvis. The uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating sensation often radiates from the lower back all the way down the leg. It can occur while you are sitting, standing or exercising. Prenatal support belts for the lower back and pelvis may help provide some comfort. You can also check with your healthcare provider or physical therapist for specific modified exercises that may help relieve discomfort. Often, prenatal yoga or Pilates can help.

Take care of swollen legs

Leg swelling (or edema) is common during pregnancy and tends to be worse in hot, humid weather and later in pregnancy. Try these tips to be more comfortable:

  • Elevate your legs whenever you can during the day
  • When sleeping, keep your feet propped up on pillows to reduce pooling of fluid throughout the night
  • Do not sit or stand for long periods
  • Keep your legs uncrossed
  • Avoid socks that have a tight band of elastic and cause your swelling to be more pronounced
  • When you exercise, be sure to wear comfortable sneakers and stay inside an air conditioned environment during heat advisory warnings to minimize the swelling
  • Continue to drink lots of fluids – Pregnant women should drink at least 10 cups of fluids daily (and even more if your diet is low in produce which contains lots of water).
  • If you also have varicose veins in your legs that are worsening, try support hose in addition to the recommendations mentioned above for alleviating swollen legs
  • Let your healthcare provider know if you have varicose veins that are worsening or if you have a significant increase in swelling

Engage only in exercises that are safe for pregnancy

If cleared by your healthcare provider, consider trying some of these types of exercise:

  • Prenatal yoga and prenatal Pilates: Prenatal exercise classes offer modified positions for stretching and strengthening to accommodate the growing belly. Prenatal yoga and prenatal Pilates classes are safe and will help you stay flexible and toned throughout your pregnancy.
  • Walking: If you have not been exercising prior to pregnancy, then walking is an easy and effective way to be active. Make a goal to walk for at least 30 minutes per day.
  • Swimming: Swimming works the whole body without stressing joints and ligaments. Furthermore, the buoyancy of the water is comforting and relaxing.
  • Stationary cycling: Road biking requires good balance and is not recommended during pregnancy; however, stationary biking is a safe variation and equally beneficial.
  • Jogging: If you were a runner prior to pregnancy, then you can continue jogging during pregnancy as long as your healthcare provider gives the OK.
  • Low-impact aerobics: Aerobic activity is generally safe during pregnancy, but stay away from exercise that involves jarring movement or jumping because these movements can cause joint strain and discomfort.
  • Light weight training: Strength training is generally safe if done with the guidance of an expert. Be sure to use slow and controlled movements, do short sets (less than 10 repetitions) and don’t hold your breath while bearing down.
  • Wrist and ankle rotations: These exercises may reduce or ward off swelling in those areas. Extend your right arm and left leg and rotate your right wrist and left ankle for 15 seconds in one direction and 15 seconds in the other. Repeat with your other arm and leg.

Consider doing exercises that can help promote back health

  • Isometric exercises: Engage the pelvic floor, abdominal, lower back, and gluteus muscles periodically while sitting, and always when lifting, to help strengthen your core and prevent lower back injury.
  • Arm and leg extensions: Start in an all-fours hands and knees position, then extend your right arm and left leg as you inhale. Return to starting position as you exhale and repeat with your left arm and right leg. Do 6 sets on each side.
  • Back press: Stand with your back against the wall and feet about one foot away from the wall. Press your lower back into the wall and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
  • Pelvic tilts: Practicing pelvic tilts will help stretch the lower back muscles that may have tightened after performing the above strengthening exercises.
  • Child’s pose: Start in an all-fours hands and knees position with hands under shoulders and knees wider than your hips. Bring your hips back to your heels and hold for 5 seconds. Come back up to your hands and knees. Repeat 5 times.
  • Sitting twist: Sit with legs crossed. Place your left hand on the floor behind you and your right hand on your left knee as you move into a gentle stretch. Hold for a breath. Do the same on the other side. Repeat the set of twists 5 more times.

When performing resistance exercises, avoid the Valsalva Maneuver, or holding your breath while contracting your muscles. This can create a lot of intra-abdominal pressure on the uterus. To avoid this, simply remember to breathe out during the exertion and inhale during the release.


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