postpartum Pain Syndrome

Ladies, let’s take a few minutes to talk about pain. There is enough emphasis about the pain experienced during labour, but I want to focus specifically on the aches and pains that women feel after giving birth to their little bundle. While many women expect there will be some ups and downs during the first year after a new baby arrives, most do not anticipate that headaches and constant, nagging stiffness and pain will be part of the package. It’s not exactly part of that loving image of cuddling with baby and gazing at their innocent sleeping face as time stands still … and your upper back feels like it’s being stabbed and you think your hips might actually fall off.

The reality is, pregnancy-related musculoskeletal pain affects women’s lives dramatically. Low back pain is the most common cause of sick leave from work after having a baby and it is estimated that anywhere from 30-95% of women experience back pain during the first year after giving birth (depending on who you ask). This is no surprise! Giving birth is an extreme sport and the demands placed on the body are intense. A recent study showed that after giving birth, many women even experienced injuries similar to athletic injuries, such as broken bones, stress fractures, muscle tears, and severe strains1. This is because of the new, persistent, and extreme demands that you are putting on your body during a time of particular vulnerability. Your ligaments and connective tissue are still not back to their pre-pregnancy strength and now you are walking around carrying 10-30 pounds of extra (sometime wiggly) “baggage” 24 hours a day. Some of these injuries can take over 8 months to fully heal.

We see this often – everyday new moms present to our office suffering from headaches, aching stiffness in the upper back and between the shoulder blades, and nagging or sharp pain across the low back or hips.  Sometimes they have tenderness or even tingling in their wrists and hands. To top it all off, they’re running on a few hours of sleep and can’t remember the last time they ate a proper meal.

This is a day in the life of a Mom with “Postpartum Pain Syndrome”. It’s a combination of  a predictable pattern of symptoms caused by repetitive activities and sustained postural stress during a time when you are most susceptible to injury. Breastfeeding for hours a day, hunching forward to change an infinite number of diapers, dragging around that heavy, awkward bucket known as “the car seat”, and carrying baby on your hip (let’s be real here… it’s always the same hip!). Eventually (quite quickly actually) this routine will take a serious toll on your body. When these activities are preformed over and over, it can create tiny micro-tears in the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine and pelvis. This initiates a cycle of inflammation, pain, and instability. Due to the repetitive nature of these postures, your body is under constant physical stress and never gets a chance to heal. The cycle is perpetuated by increased stress and a lack of sleep, which heightens inflammation and makes your nervous system “raw”.

Symptoms of Postpartum Pain Syndrome

Pain and tension across the shoulders, near the bra-line or between the shoulder blades
Neck stiffness, jaw pain, and/or headaches
Tingling in the arms or hands and wrist pain
Low back pain and hip pain
Weakening (and possibly separation) of the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles
Too often women suffering from these symptoms are misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia or arthritis, sometimes they are even put on long term pain medication. Possibly even worse, they are most often just ignored! This type of pain, aggravated by a lack of sleep, emotional stress, and adapting to a new family dynamic, can be a huge contributor to postpartum depression. It’s a slippery slope and it’s easy to get overwhelmed when physically you are not feeling your best.  It isn’t just about pain and discomfort and complaining.  You can not be your best self or the best mom you can be when you are in pain or drained. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it’s one of the best things you can do for your baby. 

So what can you do?!

1. Understand that you are not alone. 

Many women struggle with the dramatic physical changes that are associated with bringing a brand new person into this world. Being a Mom is hard work! It is normal to feel this way and you will get through it. There are plenty of new Mom groups and support spaces if you ever are feeling like you need someone to connect with in your community.

2. Invest in the care you need. 

Your body deserves a little love! A skilled practitioner, such as a chiropractor, massage therapist, acupuncturist, or naturopath can help you address the specific physical challenges associated with motherhood and get you functioning, moving, and feeling better. Find what type of care (or combination of care) works best for you and stick with it, even when you start to feel good again.  Make sure you find someone who is familiar with the intricacies of working with the post-natal population.

3. Make home-care a priority.

I repeat: taking time to look after yourself does not make you selfish. Make time in your day to stretch, eat well (and often), and stay active. Try a Mom and Baby yoga class, go for a swim, or try a new hike. Get your family involved and create a habit of being healthy together. At AltaVie, we can help create a home-care plan with customized exercise rehab that accomplishes your goals and fits your lifestyle.

4. Pay attention to your posture.

Take some time to think about your body position. For many “Mommy” postures, such as breastfeeding or sleeping, there is usually an alternative that is just a little bit easier for your back. Just being aware of sitting up straight and keeping your shoulders relaxed is a great first step. Use pillows. Check in with yourself. Try a variety of positions. Make sure you are taking full breaths (and not breathing shallow).

5. Drink up! … Water that is  

Water affects every organ and cell within your body. Dehydration is a huge contributor to headaches and chronic pain. It has been estimated that over 75% of North Americans are dehydrated.

It’s easy to invest the world in your baby and prioritize their safety, health, and happiness above all else.  It’s good too!  But it is not good to let yourself suffer.  I can’t emphasize enough the impact it will have on your entire family if YOU are happy and healthy.  A thriving, pain-free, well-fed mom will guide and raise an exceptional family.  What’s best for baby is mom at her best.  So take a deep breath, check in with your posture, and take care of you!