By Adelaide Women's Physio | September 13, 2018
What does pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy mean?
Pelvic girdle pain (PGP) in pregnancy can arise from the three main joints of the pelvis and the muscles, ligaments and nerves associated with these joints. There are two sacroiliac joints (SIJ) at the back of the pelvis. The SIJ exists between the sacrum and the side pelvic bone called the ilium. At the front of the pelvis is the pubic symphysis (PS).
A pregnant woman’s discomfort may come from the front PS and/or the right or left SIJ. It is possible for the pain pattern to shift day to day or week to week, where it may be just one sided, or it alternates, or the pain is only felt at the front or the pain is only at the back of the pelvis.
When only the pubic symphysis is involved the pelvic girdle pain is sometimes referred to as Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD).
Varying levels of pain can be felt in different areas, which may include the pubic symphysis, groin, lower abdomen, inner thigh, hip, buttock, outer thigh, entire leg or low back.
Pain may be constant or intermittent often described as an ache. Pelvic girdle pain can also be felt as a shooting/stabbing pain in the buttock, down the leg or at the front of the pelvis. Weight bearing on the leg/s may be quite difficult because of this pain experience.
Pregnancy pelvic girdle pain can occur early in the first trimester or at any time during the second and third trimesters.
What causes Pregnancy Pelvic Girdle Pain and Back Pain?
During pregnancy a combination of hormonal changes, altered posture and ineffective muscle support systems of the low back and pelvis may lead to feelings of discomfort and difficulty with walking and general movement. Hormonal softening of joint ligaments and muscle tissue means the joints and tissues of the pelvis and lumbar spine will be easily strained with repetitive activity, poor posture and incorrect exercise. The pain occurs because the pelvic joints have difficulty transferring weight bearing forces through the pelvis due to the physical and hormonal changes in pregnancy.
Unsupportive muscle systems then overwork to try and hold the pelvis together, creating shortened, tight muscles with painful trigger points in the buttock, thigh, hip and lumbar spine. Pregnant women experiencing pelvic girdle pain will often speak of stiffness as well as pain.
What are the Symptoms of Pregnancy Pelvic Girdle Pain?
Symptoms of pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy can be a combination of the following:
- Shuffling gait
- Difficulty weight bearing on one leg
- Difficulty climbing stairs
- Pain turning in bed
- Poor sleep with difficulty getting comfortable because of hip pain
- Inflammation or swelling over the sacrum or pubic bones
- Sciatic type pain down the leg
- Pain with long periods of sitting or standing
- Difficulty going from sit to stand
- Increased discomfort with routine daily activities
- Hip stiffness
- Pelvic floor muscle weakness
Can Pelvic Girdle Pain appear outside of Pregnancy?
Yes, pelvic girdle pain can occur in the postnatal period and is often related to a woman experiencing a small amount of buttock or hip discomfort in the last weeks of her pregnancy. In this scenario, the pregnant woman puts up with the pain in her third trimester, but after delivering the baby her pelvic joints and muscles struggle with the increased lifting, bending and holding movements that are required with baby care.
Injury can produce sacroiliac joint dysfunction and pain at any time in a woman’s life. This SIJ dysfunction has the same symptoms as pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy. The type of injury producing pelvic girdle pain is commonly a fall and landing on one side of the body or buttock. The position of the sacroiliac joint surfaces can be upset in this injury, leading to dysfunction because the transmission of weight bearing forces through the pelvis is upset.
Hormonal changes in the menstrual cycle and at the time of menopause can create muscle imbalances and hip problems that produce a pelvic girdle pain picture.
Overtraining in the gym or in sport may also produce sacroiliac joint dysfunction and pelvic girdle pain, this being related to muscle imbalance and overworking muscle systems that are not supporting the pelvic joints.
What is the Role of Physiotherapy in Treating Pelvic Girdle Pain in Pregnancy?
A physiotherapy assessment is essential to determine the treatment approach and advice for women experiencing PGP. It is recommended that an experienced Physiotherapist treats your presentation. This means a physio who knows the relevance of the musculoskeletal changes occurring in pregnancy. The Physiotherapist must have expert clinical skills in treating pelvic girdle pain with manual therapy and exercise, along with giving the appropriate advice to you.
At Physiotherapy for Women a research based Pelvic Girdle Questionnaire is given to each pregnant woman presenting with PGP. This assists in giving the physio a picture of the level of pelvic girdle pain and dysfunction the client is experiencing. The response to the questionnaire becomes a clinical measure for the effectiveness of the physiotherapy treatment approach over several treatment sessions.
The physiotherapy evaluation is important to determine what pelvic joint, ligament and muscle tissue is not working properly with specific movement testing. This will determine the cause of your pain, stiffness or loss of movement. Specialised clinical tests will be performed to rule out any problems that may require further medical intervention.
Listening to your goals and what is important to you will determine the direction of the treatment program. Physiotherapy treatment for pregnancy pelvic girdle pain may include:
- Manual therapy Massage, soft tissue and trigger point release for tight, sore muscle groups is a part of manual therapy. Correcting pelvic joint or SIJ alignment requires specific manual therapy skills, including muscle energy techniques.
- Core activation Training of pelvic floor and transversus abdominis muscle activation is important in resetting a background of core muscle support around your pelvis and lumbar spine. Selecting the right positions for core exercise is necessary. Then progression of the exercise can occur with graded loading that is safe and appropriate for you.
- Strengthening exercises Reducing ligament sprain and pain in your pregnant pelvis requires strengthening of weak gluteal, lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles to improve stability of the sacroiliac, pubic symphysis and spinal joints.
- Flexibility exercises Tight muscles often need to be stretched to improve your flexibility, but selection and timing of when these stretches start requires the skills of the physio. If an overworking muscle system is stretched too soon before a background of core muscle support is happening in the pregnant woman’s body, pelvic joint pain can increase.
- Modalities To alleviate pain or to soften tight muscles prior to treatment or exercise, hot or cold treatments are often prescribed. Electrical treatments can also be a choice of treatment. Small ice packs placed over a painful pubic symphysis may be instructed by the physio as a home treatment.
- Bracing Your physio may recommend wearing a pregnancy pelvic belt that needs to be correctly fitted to support the pelvic ring. Specific taping with either rigid tape or kinesiology tape may be chosen to better support the SIJ’s and dampen trigger point activity in muscles. Wearing pregnancy support shorts, such as SRC or Solidea, may be suggested to provide necessary pelvic and low back support in daily activities and at work.
- Education Your physio will teach you postural correction, back support in sitting, how to improve your general movement approaches in daily activity and how to carry or lift light objects safely. This information will assist in making you feel more comfortable. Being encouraged to have a daily rest may also be advised.
The earlier you seek physiotherapy treatment for pelvic girdle pain symptoms the better it is for you. Treating the pelvic joint niggle or slight buttock/hip muscle ache is preferred, as you can take the physios advice home with you and make your pregnancy a happier time in general. Thinking pelvic girdle pain is simply a part of pregnancy and nothing can be done for this condition is incorrect. However, it is true that in severe cases of PGP in pregnancy women are unable to walk short distances without using crutches or a walking frame. So please be wise and take the healthy approach by seeking out the skills of Physiotherapists working with pregnant women.