Pregnancy brings with it a laundry list of side effects, from weight gain and nausea to limits on your physical activity and even possible health complications. But for those women who have suffered back pain prior to becoming pregnant, particularly those with a history of herniated discs, that list can be even more menacing. There's also, of course, the worry that pregnancy itself will cause herniated disc. So what causes a herniated disc? More specifically, is it a potential pregnancy complication you should spend your time and energy worrying about? After all, you have enough to focus on, what with the whole "growing another human being inside your body" thing.
Let's begin with what, exactly, a herniated disc is. The American Academy of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) explains that he bones that make up our spine are cushioned by small discs which act as shock absorbers for the spinal bones. These discs are round and flat, and are surrounded by a jellylike layer. So when a disc becomes herniated (which means it either slips, ruptures, or bulges), a piece of that disc has pushed through the jellylike layer and into the spinal canal. Yes, that's about as fun as it sounds. When the disc presses on the spinal nerves it can produce severe, debilitating pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, herniated discs most often occur in the lower back, but they can potentially occur anywhere in the spine. The cause of a herniated disc is usually age-related wear and tear. The Mayo Clinic's website explains, saying, "As you age, your spinal disks lose some of their water content. That makes them less flexible and more prone to tearing or rupturing with even a minor strain or twist."
Strenuous activities, such as heavy lifting or twisting and/or turning while lifting, can cause a disc to rupture (i.e. a herniated disc), too. The activity doesn't have to be a repetitive one to cause damage (although repetitive strenuous activities are one of the risk factors). As the AANS website points out, "A single excessive strain or injury may cause a herniated disc." The Mayo Clinic states, however, that traumatic events, such as falling, are rarely the culprit.
According to the American Academy of Orhopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) there are other lifestyle risk factors for a herniated disc. These include smoking,and excessive body weight that places added stress on the discs (in the lower back). An article from The New York Times points out that another risk factor is whether there were conditions present at birth that affected the size of the lumbar spinal canal. The article goes on to note that most herniated discs occur in middle-aged and older men, often after a strenuous activity.
But what about all those women worried about back pain and pregnancy, or worse, getting a herniated disc while pregnant? Dr. David Barad, a fertility specialist and gynecologist at The Center for Human Reproduction in New York, explains that back pain is something that many pregnant women will likely experience during those 40 weeks (more or less) of gestation, but that there are ways to decrease the risk:
"Back pain is a common complaint in pregnancy affecting over half of pregnant women. Exercise, both before and during pregnancy, to strengthen the abdominal muscles and back muscles can decrease the risk of back pain."
As for whether pregnancy can cause a herniated disc, Dr. Barad's answer is, no. Barad goes on to explain, saying, "Pregnancy is not a cause of herniated disk, but women with herniated disk may experience special problems during pregnancy. Women with a herniated disk in the third trimester have increased risk of significant pain. Women should discuss treatment of such pain with their obstetrician; often with bed rest, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like Motrin), and judicious exercise."
If you've never had back problems and you're worried about getting a herniated disc when you're pregnant, you shouldn't be. As for regular back pain? Well, you probably should invest in a heading pad. And if you just were curious what a herniated disc was in the first place, and nothing more, now you have lots of information for your arsenal.