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19 common pregnancy complaints

Pregnant woman with a back achePregnancy can be quite a strain on your body and there are inevitably a number of complaints and discomforts that come with the joy of creating and growing a whole new person.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the more common pregnancy complaints, why they occur and what you can do to ease the symptoms.

Do take care of yourself at this important time and don’t suffer in silence!

Help yourself with some of the hints outlined below and seek assistance from your healthcare provider, complementary therapists or specialist physiotherapists. Attending specially supervised pregnancy exercise classes can also help you to keep in shape and feel healthy.

Always seek advice from your healthcare provider before taking any supplements including over the counter herbal preparations. If you are in doubt about taking any medications or supplements, or chemicals in general around the house, please contact Medicines Line.

19 common pregnancy complaints

Anaemia

Fatigue or shortness of breath can sometimes indicate anaemia, a condition that can arise during pregnancy. There are various forms of anaemia, or low red blood-cell count, and the most common cause is iron deficiency. Low levels of folic acid and vitamin B12 can also contribute to anaemia.

Ten to 15 per cent of pregnant women are likely to develop the condition. It is usually picked up in antenatal screening, either in the first trimester, which indicates an anaemic condition prior to pregnancy, or in the last trimester. If this is the case, it is likely to occur because your body requires greater red cell and blood production for yourself, your baby and the placenta.

To avoid developing anaemia during pregnancy, ensure you have a varied diet, including beef, wholemeal bread, cereals, eggs, spinach and dried fruit. The absorption of iron is increased when it is eaten with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits and broccoli, avocado, asparagus, mushrooms and salad vegetables. You may also consider taking a supplement that includes iron, plus vitamins and folic acid. If you have concerns, arrange a consultation with your GP or obstetrician for medical advice.

Backache

As your body compensates for the additional weight of your growing baby at the front of your body, a combination of pregnancy hormones causing muscles and ligaments to relax, poor posture, and weak abdominal muscles can result in your back muscles over-compensating, causing a dull backache, which can spread to the buttocks and down the legs. Taking care of your back during pregnancy is very important.

  • keep your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles strong by attending regular, specialised pregnancy exercise classes
  • don’t lift heavy objects, if you can avoid it, but if you do have to lift things (such as your older children), ensure that you use a good technique, bending your knees and keeping your back straight as you lift
  • if you have children already, get into the habit of sitting or squatting down at their level to comfort or cuddle them instead of picking them up, or sit on a chair and bring them up onto your lap
  • Don’t wear high-heeled shoes as these just make your posture worse

A visit to a pregnancy masseur and/or specialist physiotherapist may also help. Any sharp pains should be discussed with your healthcare provider as these may be a sign of other conditions.

Breathlessness

As your baby grows, it takes up increasing space inside you. The baby can push up the diaphragm making it more difficult for you to take deep breaths, which you need to do when exercising or exerting yourself.

You can only really avoid breathlessness by taking it easy and avoiding over exertion. If you do get out of breath, sit down until you get your breath back or you run the risk of fainting.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Water retention in later pregnancy can cause pressure to be exerted on the carpel tunnel (a bunch of nerves running down your arm and wrist). This can result in a tingling sensation (or pins and needles) in your thumb and fingers (particularly the first finger).

You can ease the sensation by raising your hands above your head and wriggling your fingers. At night-time, keep your hands raised slightly on pillows. For severe cases, you healthcare provider may prescribe a wrist support or medications.

Cramps

Hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause mineral and electrolyte levels to fluctuate in the body. These changes can result in cramps, which are a sudden painful tightening of the muscle. Pregnancy cramps most commonly occur in the calf and feet muscles and become more common in the third trimester.

If a cramp occurs, stretch the muscle out and apply firm massage to alleviate the cramp. Don’t point your toes that makes things worse!

Discuss any regular cramps with your healthcare provider as they may be a sign of a dietary deficiency.

Constipation

During pregnancy, hormonal changes result in a relaxing of the gut wall which can make it more difficult for you to move your bowel which in turn can cause constipation.

You can keep constipation at bay by drinking plenty of water, eating a high-fibre diet – dried apricots, figs and prunes are great natural fibre providers – and exercising gently and regularly walking is a great help.

Ensure that you go to the toilet as soon as you feel the need too. You need to avoid straining when you go to the toilet or this can then lead to haemorrhoids – see the haemorrhoids section below for the ideal position to use when on the loo!

If necessary, take a fibre supplement from your local pharmacy (check with your healthcare provider first). An excess of iron (particularly from iron supplements) can also cause constipation, however, in this case you will notice a considerable darkening of the stool.

Faintness

Feeling faint is a sign of a lack of blood flow to the head. When you are pregnant, your body has to work harder than usual to pump increased blood around the body. If you stand for too long, stand up too quickly or over-exert yourself, your blood may not keep up with you resulting in a loss of blood flow to the head and you feeling faint.

Sit or lie down quietly until the feeling passes and take it easy. If symptoms persist and occur often, ensure that you advise your healthcare provider as this may be a sign of other conditions.

Haemorrhoids/piles

Haemorrhoids (or piles) are varicose veins in the anus. They are caused by relaxation of valves in the veins around the anus during pregnancy, the pressure and weight of the baby, and straining because of constipation.

They can be very painful – using an iced sanitary towel (wrapped in material) can offer some relief or try a localised anaesthetic cream from your pharmacy (ask your healthcare provider for advice). Otherwise, they need to be treated with surgery after you have completed your family.

The best way to avoid haemorrhoids is to:

  • avoid constipation
  • use a good positional technique when passing a motion on the toilet to avoid straining (see below)
  • wear support stockings
  • avoid sitting with crossed legs

The ThinkerOK, so how does this image of Rodin’s The Thinker help here? Well I’m not good at drawing so this is a good starting point!

The best position to use when sitting on the toilet to avoid straining is as follows:

  • ensure that your knees are slightly higher than your hips either by placing your feet on a small step or by raising onto the balls of your feet
  • lean forward at the hips, keeping your back straight
  • put your elbows on your knees
  • brace to make your waist wide – push into your waist not your bottom

Use this position after the baby too to avoid straining.

High blood pressure

Your blood pressure will be tested at each antenatal check-up throughout your pregnancy. This is important as high blood pressure, combined with protein in the urine, can signal the development of a condition called pre-eclampsia. One in 14 pregnant women is likely to develop pre-eclampsia and it can even be fatal in rare cases

High blood pressure can vary from mild with few symptoms to severe, with some women experiencing vomiting, headaches and blurred vision. Water retention can also be a side effect. If you are experiencing the more severe symptoms it is important to discuss this with your obstetrician or GP.

You are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure if this is your first baby (it’s not known why), if you are having a multiple pregnancy or if you are aged over 35. Women who have high blood pressure before conceiving may be prescribed medication to help keep it under control during pregnancy.

High blood pressure will have a more profound effect in late pregnancy. If it becomes a problem, close observation of both mother and baby are recommended and in more severe cases you may require hospitalisation so you can be monitored. You may need to be induced or have to have a Caesarean if your baby is affected. Blood pressure due to pregnancy usually returns to normal after the birth.

Headaches

During pregnancy your blood volume increases, particularly during the first and second trimesters. It is this increase in blood volume that can cause headaches. They should ease in the third trimester. Paracetamol can be taken (recommended dose only), it is important not to take Ibuprofen during pregnancy.

If headaches continue during the third trimester and get worse, please let your healthcare provider know as this could indicate a blood pressure problem.

Incontinence

The weight of the baby, combined with pregnancy hormones, can cause a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to ‘stress incontinence’ and general incontinence. ‘Stress incontinence’ is when you wet yourself slightly when you laugh, cough, jump, or sneeze.

To lessen your chances of incontinence, ensure that you keep your pelvic floor muscles strong by practicing regular pelvic floor exercises, see your physiotherapist or attend a specialised pregnancy exercise class.

The muscles of the Pelvic floor are extremely important for the support of the internal organs as well as bladder and bowel function. The muscles can become strained and weakened during pregnancy and childbirth, leading to Pelvic floor dysfunction and continence problems (among others).

Itchy skin

Some mothers-to-be develop itchy skin, perhaps due to the stretching it needs to do to accommodate the growing breasts and belly. It may also be due to hormonal changes. If your skin tends to be dry and itchy or you are affected by eczema, this may worsen during pregnancy.

Unscented moisturisers, calamine lotion and antihistamines can provide relief, and it is best to avoid hot showers and baths. Use a mild soap or soap substitute and rinse your skin well. If it is concerning you, visit your GP or obstetrician to check about taking medication and to make sure it’s not due to a more serious cause such as Intrahepatic Cholestasis of Pregnancy (ICP).

Heartburn

Heartburn is a painful sensation in the upper part of the chest. It occurs when stomach acid rises up the oesophagus (wind-pipe) and causes a burning sensation. It is common during late pregnancy as the baby takes up increasing room and reduces the space available for your stomach. Hormonal changes can also cause a relaxing of the valves between your stomach and wind-pipe which can also increase the likelihood of heartburn in pregnancy.

To lessen the chances of heartburn:

  • eat small, regular meals
  • avoid fatty, rich, or heavily spiced foods
  • avoid lying down immediately after meals
  • if necessary, sleep propped up on a pillow

Alkaline substances, such as low-fat milk, can help reduce the acidity in your stomach.

Anti-heartburn preparations (antacids) are also available from your local pharmacy. Discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider before taking any medications.

Morning sickness

The causes of morning sickness aren’t fully understood, some people never have any sickness at all, whilst others suffer from ‘all-day sickness’ for virtually the whole of their pregnancy. However, in general, morning sickness strikes in the first trimester from about 8 weeks until 14 weeks.

A drop in blood-sugar is thought to be one of the causes of nausea. As blood sugar levels are often low first thing in the morning when you wake up, this is the most likely time for the nauseous feeling to occur; and hence the name “morning sickness”. Others, however, have a natural sugar-low in the afternoon and often feel ill in the evening.

These are strategies for coping and trying to stave off pregnancy nausea:

  • eat small regular meals
  • eat a couple of dry crackers/dry toast first thing in the morning
  • reduce fatty foods
  • reduce highly sweetened foods
  • eat ginger based products – ginger biscuits, ginger tea, crystallised ginger
  • ensure that you drink adequate fluids (preferably water), but drink slowly and avoid too much fluid intake with meal
  • salty foods – rice crackers, vegemite toast (without butter), Saladas
  • icy poles or crushed ice
  • fruit tingles
  • mints
  • get plenty of fresh air
  • visit a homeopath or acupuncturist
  • plan simple, plain meals – or get others to cook for you
  • don’t lie down immediately after eating

There are medications if things get really, really bad.

Oedema/water retention

During pregnancy there are increased fluid levels in the body. This can present itself as swelling and puffiness, particularly around the feet and ankles. The likelihood of water retention increases towards the end of the pregnancy.

Water retention can be uncomfortable, and you can try and lessen the occurrence and discomfort by:

  • avoiding standing for long periods
  • resting – with your feet up
  • wearing loose clothing
  • taking off rings or jewellery
  • wearing looser shoes

Your health care practitioner will check for signs of oedema, particularly swelling around the hands and face, during antenatal visits as it can be sign of pre-eclampsia.

Rib pain

After 30 weeks, it is not uncommon to feel pain below the ribs because your baby will be taking up all of the available space. Sitting down can make it worse as can an active, kicking and punching baby. The pain can range from mild to very painful and is most likely to occur in the area below the right breast.

The ribs move up and out because you need to breathe faster and deeper in order to do the added work for the baby. This can strain the muscles between the ribs and cause pain and discomfort but, if you have constant pain in the chest, ribs or upper back, consult your doctor to rule out any heart or lung complications. To relieve discomfort, wear loose clothing, change your posture by sitting more upright, support yourself with cushions, and gently press the baby down with your hand to temporarily reduce the tension. After 36 weeks your baby should start to drop down, helping to ease the pain.

Stretch marks

The skin around the abdomen has to stretch during pregnancy to accommodate the growing baby in the uterus. Sometimes the skin fibres weaken as they stretch resulting in red spidery ‘stretch marks’, which can occur on the abdomen, thighs and breasts. You can try to lessen the likelihood or severity of stretch marks by applying moisturisers or special ‘stretch mark’ creams during and after your pregnancy but there is little evidence to suggest they will work. Stretch marks are more likely to be genetic.

Thrush

Pregnancy hormonal changes can cause an imbalance of natural bacterial levels in the body, leaving you more susceptible to a thrush infection.

Thrush is best treated with preparations available from your pharmacy but ensure that your let your pharmacist know that you are pregnant to ensure that you get the correct medication for you.

Varicose Veins

Hormonal changes that cause a relaxation of the valves within your veins, together with an increased blood volume and the additional weight of the baby can cause irreparable damage to the valves in your veins, particularly in your legs, but can also occur in the anus (haemorrhoids) and vulva. The valves in veins are one-way valves allowing blood to travel one-way only. Under pressure, these valves can get damaged and blood pools back behind the vein causing unsightly (and sometimes painful) bumps and bulges.

Take plenty of rest with your legs up and exercise gently to try and reduce the likelihood of developing varicose veins. If necessary, wear support stockings.

Varicose veins can only be treated surgically once they have formed.

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