Amid the general maladies of pregnancy — morning sickness, sore hips and breasts, aches from supporting a burgeoning belly — one woman’s back pain eclipsed expected symptoms. For several months, the Portland, Oregon-based thirty-something had suffered a debilitating pain in her pubic bone area.
She had trouble walking. Taking the stairs was agonizing. Even balancing on one leg long enough to pull on a pair of pants was a challenge, recalls Jennifer Brocker, a board-certified pediatric chiropractor based in Portland, Oregon.
At the time, the woman believed that severe pain was simply part of being pregnant.
“She was going on the assumption that pain is normal in pregnancy, and that’s just the way it is,” Brocker explains. “(But) it’s not the way it is. There’s a lot we (chiropractors) can do to help with discomfort during pregnancy and make pregnancy enjoyable and comfortable.”
When the woman reached her third trimester, a midwife suggested chiropractic treatment — and referred her to Brocker. The cartilage that holds the pubic bones together, which forms a joint, had softened during pregnancy, resulting in a condition called pubic symphysis diastasis, or PSD. This allowed the joint to get stuck, which caused the woman pain during movement.
Brocker treated her three times over two weeks, providing simple adjustments as she would with most patients. And it worked.
“The pain was totally resolved,” Brocker says.
Chiropractic Care and Pregnancy Pain
Musculoskeletal pain during pregnancy is common. A 2018 study in Therapeutic Advances in Musculoskeletal Disease, for instance, found that 70% of 184 women who gave birth in a hospital reported having low back pain during their pregnancy. Overall, 80% of participants reported experiencing more general back pain, and 32% said they endured hip pain.
Plus, 33% had hand-wrist discomfort, which is often the culprit of carpal tunnel syndrome, worsened in pregnancy by swelling that causes nerve compression. Since carpal tunnel surgery is usually not recommended or covered by insurance during pregnancy, patients may turn to chiropractic support for treatment.
Alternative pain management options are particularly important for pregnant women. There are many pain medications, for example, they shouldn’t use because they could adversely affect their baby, explains Dr. Heather L. Beall, an OB-GYN with Northwestern Medicine in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
“You don’t want (pregnant women) to use chronic pain pills because they’re addictive,” she explains. Additionally, these medications could cause the baby to go into withdrawal when they are born.
Other medications that are usually considered common over-the-counter remedies may not be considered safe during pregnancy either. For instance, some non-steroidal pain medications, like ibuprofen, could cause the fetus’s heart connection to close prematurely, which could be life-threatening, Beall says.
What Is Chiropractic Treatment?
So, how can chiropractic treatment help? Tens of millions of people in the U.S. see chiropractors for relief from a variety of conditions, including back, shoulder, foot and neck pain, headaches, a loss of strength in their arms and hands and numbness and tingling.
For patients like the woman with PSD, chiropractors can restore motion to restricted joints, Brocker says. During an initial visit, a chiropractor typically takes a thorough health history and does a physical exam, paying attention to anything that may be a contraindication to chiropractic care, like a fractured bone or joint dislocation.
The chiropractor can then employ an array of adjustments. For example, they can use their hands to apply controlled and rapid force — pressure, more specifically — to a restricted joint. This allows the joint to move in a normal manner and reduces inflammation and pain, Brocker explains.
Chiropractic Care During Pregnancy
Concerned about the dangers of chiropractic care during pregnancy? Modifications to the applied force with special populations — like pregnant women — help ensure the adjustment is “comfortable, safe and effective,” Brocker says.
If you’re pregnant, experiencing discomfort and considering seeking chiropractic treatment, experts recommend these strategies:
— Talk to your health care provider.
— Look for a chiropractor experienced in treating pregnant women.
— Develop an exercise and stretching routine.
— Consider acupuncture and massage.
Talk to your health care provider
Your health care provider can help determine whether the pain you’re experiencing is related to your joints and could therefore be helped with chiropractic treatment or whether it’s being caused by something else, Beall says. For example, pain in your gallbladder, which is common during pregnancy, may sometimes be felt in your back, rather than in the front of your abdomen.
If you’re considering chiropractic treatment, ask your OB-GYN, family medicine doctor or certified nurse-midwife for recommendations. Your OB provider may have specific chiropractors in mind who have experience working with pregnant women, Beall says.
As for timing, you can receive chiropractic care while pregnant, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Your OB-GYN-recommended chiropractor can avoid unnecessary pressure on your abdomen and give you exercises safe to perform during pregnancy.
Look for a chiropractor experienced in treating pregnant women
If you were seeing a chiropractor before you learned you were expecting, they are not necessarily the provider you’d want to go to as a pregnancy chiropractor, Beall says. Ideally, you’d see a chiropractor who’s experienced in treating pregnant women.
Outside of recommendations, do an online search of chiropractors in your area, she suggests. Some chiropractors have lots of experience working with pregnant women and are likely to say so on their website, where they’ll also note their educational background and training.
Develop an exercise and stretching routine
While chiropractic treatment can be an effective option for pregnant women experiencing discomfort, it should be strengthened with stretching and exercise, says Andrew Bang, a chiropractor with the Cleveland Clinic‘s Department of Wellness & Preventive Medicine.
“Manipulation can provide instant relief because the body releases pain-fighting chemicals,” Bang says.
However, deep stretches and exercises you can do at home will provide a longer-lasting benefit, he adds. Your chiropractor or a physical therapist can show you which ones would be beneficial.
Consider acupuncture and massage
Like chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture and massage cause the body to release analgesic — or painkilling — chemicals. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicinal practice in which a provider inserts small needles into different points on the body. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, it can help blunt chronic pain, among other benefits.
Some types of acupuncture may stimulate labor, which could result in premature delivery, the Mayo Clinic notes. However, 2015 research in Acupuncture Medicine suggests that acupuncture is safe for pregnant women. Researchers noted that two published systematic reviews found no miscarriage, preterm deliveries or other obstetric complications attributable to acupuncture.
Massage, especially acupressure, can also be helpful in relieving pain during pregnancy. Acupressure is a “specific type of massage that relies primarily on using the thumbs, fingers and palms to apply pressure to various points on the body” without using needles, according to the Acupuncture Massage College in Miami.
One 2022 study, for example, found that acupressure massage reduced low back pain during pregnancy.
Whichever approach you choose, look for a provider experienced with treating pregnant women.
More from U.S. News
Update 06/15/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.