If you've had a baby before, you know the unmistakable feeling of contractions. If you're expecting your first little one, you're on the lookout. While contractions feel a bit different for everyone, many women describe them similarly: like their worst menstrual cramps on steroids. Some women can physically feel their uterus contract, while others report sharp sensations like gas pains. Another common symptom reported? Back pain. While there's an entire phenomenon (or, nightmare) called back labor, back pain is actually a common symptom for plain old regular labor, too. Here's why your back hurts when you're having contractions.
Once you've gotten into the final stages of pregnancy (or once you feel "terminally pregnant," as my mom lovingly describes it), back pain is probably part of your everyday life. According to WebMD, there are a few different reasons for this. Obviously, your growing uterus and weight gain put increased pressure on your lower back, which can cause pain in itself. As you've grown and your center of gravity has changed, changes in your posture can also result in some back discomfort. Additionally, the site explained, the pregnancy hormone called relaxin, which loosens your joints and ligaments in preparation for birth, "can cause ligaments that support the spine to loosen, leading to instability and pain." Ah, the unexpected joys of pregnancy!
However, the back pain experienced during contractions differs from the general achey feelings experienced during pregnancy. In fact, many women note that their first sign of labor was their general back discomfort increasing to a sharp pain. Christine Boye, a labor support and postpartum doula, spoke to Romper about why this back pain can occur. "Most people believe that it usually is related to the baby’s position within the pelvis. Sometimes if the baby is sometimes referred to as ‘sunny-side up,’ or occiput posterior, facing the mommy’s abdomen, then sometimes the head can push against the tailbone or the spine and that can feel really painful," Boye explains to Romper. As you can probably imagine, this positioning causes intense back pain that peaks during contractions. While many women who experience full on back labor do have babies in this position, it's not a prerequisite for it.
Of course, experiencing intense back pain during contractions doesn't necessarily mean baby is in a particular position. "If a woman has a shorter torso and the baby is long, then it just has less room to go as it’s coming through the pelvis, and so she can feel more back pain. It’s not necessarily a bad position of the baby. It can sometimes just be mom’s anatomy, and its compatibility with baby’s anatomy," Boye says.
For many women, back pain during contractions can be indicative of how they perceive their pain. Dr. Vanessa Barss, OB-GYN and Fellow of The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, explains. "During labor when the uterus contracts, the cervix stretches around the baby’s head, and the baby descends down the birth canal, pain receptors in these organs are activated, sending pain signals to the spinal cord and resulting in the sensation of pain in the organ and sometimes nearby areas, such as the lower back," Barss explains to Romper. In other words, you may feel like your back is about to break... but it might just be how you're perceiving the beautiful, wonderful, all-over pain of contractions.
While there's no way to ensure you don't experience any back pain during contractions (don't you wish?), there are a few ways to alleviate some of it. The American Pregnancy Association recommends getting off your back as much as possible during labor. According to their website, "Being in the supine position (lying on your back) during labor increases the possibility of back labor and can make it much more painful. If you need to lie down, choose a position on your side or some sort of tilt position." Additionally, walking, swaying, and sitting on a birthing ball can help get baby moving – thanks, gravity!
Boye also recommends enlisting your partner to help you deal with your aching back. "As a labor support doula, a lot of what I do is pain management and comfort techniques. One of the favorites of my clients is something called counter pressure, which is just intense pressure on the lower back near the sacrum. That can actually help tilt the pelvis in such a way that the back pain decreases," Boye explains. "Water is also really fantastic as a pain management technique, for back labor or just labor in general which is not very comfortable," so if you're looking for some relief — any relief — a soak in the tub might help.
Experiencing back pain during contractions is extremely unpleasant, but extremely common. Fortunately, back pain during contractions, and full-blown back labor itself, cannot harm you or your sweet baby. While that might not take away your pain, it can at least provide some light at the end of the long, uncomfortable tunnel.