With the latest annual data showing that 57% of women participate in the labor force, it’s no question pregnancy in the workplace is a major challenge and lifestyle change impacting women in the modern world.
Childbirth is perhaps the most physical, mental, and spiritual experience of a woman’s life. The preparation for childbirth, i.e., pregnancy, presents a myriad of changes for a soon-to-be-mother throughout the 9-month incubation period.
As a male counterpart, I will never get to experience pregnancy and childbirth nor do I pretend to completely understand what a mother goes through. What I have experienced was how my wife managed two pregnancies and births within a three-year period, all while maintaining her professional career. Needless to say, it was the most challenging time of her life.
One of many physical frustrations my wife experienced during pregnancy was low back pain.
Because you have a human being growing inside of you, your body changes e.g., increased weight and skeletal changes, so how you carry yourself changes as well. However, pregnancy is not a cause of back pain! It merely accentuates any physical imbalances and dysfunctions that may already exist based on your habitual postural and movement behaviors.
Just because you are a woman who is pregnant or planning to be pregnant does not mean back pain or sciatica are inevitable for you. Here are three strategies you can employ now to mitigate or reduce the risk, or even prevent pregnancy-related back pain at the office.
Whether you’re female, male, Hispanic, Caucasian, pregnant or not, the postural position of your spine matters. We all should strive for the same thing: a neutral spine.
A neutral spine is essentially your halfway point between sticking your butt out (JLo booty) and tucking your tail between your legs (plumber butt).
A JLo booty, presenting with a big arch in the low back, is not ideal because it’s a position of excessive spinal loading into extension (backward), crunching down on your spine and chronically fatiguing the back muscles.
A plumber butt, presenting with a flat back and tucked butt appearance, is not ideal because it’s a position of excessive spinal loading into flexion (forward), overstressing spinal discs and chronically overstressing the gluteal muscles, which can lead to hips issues.
A neutral spine is ideal because it allows for even loading throughout the spinal column and its associated abdominal musculature, opposed to overstressing the structures excessively in one direction or the other, causing uneven wear and tear.
How do we achieve a neutral spine and how do we know if we’re doing it right?
If you’re comfortable getting down and up from the ground, assume the position of a crawling baby on your hands and knees. First, think about tilting just your butt up toward the ceiling (JLo booty) while keeping the rest of your body relatively quiet. Next, do the opposite: pull your butt down like you’re tucking your tailbone between your legs (plumber butt). Cycle between these two end-range positions about 10 times. Now, find the position you feel is the halfway point between the JLo booty and plumber butt positions — this is your neutral spine.
Now that you’ve got this down pat, let’s see how well you can do it like an adult on two legs. Get into a standing position where you’re ready to swing a golf club. Hug your shoulders. Next, attempt to cycle between JLo booty and plumber butt while keeping the rest of your body relatively quiet. Challenging, right? Now, find your halfway point — neutral spine. Now, stand up straight while maintaining your neutral spine — this is where you ideally want to be whether you’re working at the office or working out in the gym.
What About Sitting?
No matter which way you shift it, JLo or plumber, prolonged sitting is not good for our spinal health. However, if you’re forced to sit more than you would like, there are simple strategies to combat the negative effects of sitting: don’t sit like a jerk (video below) and read on through number three!
Core Strength & Stability
We’ve discussed proper alignment by finding spinal neutral, so let’s talk about how to maintain the positioning with movement — how we interact with the world.
Our spine is like links of a chain. Just as chain links cannot hold themselves up on their own, the vertebral bones of our spine cannot hold themselves up without muscular activity holding them up in place.
The spine and abdominal musculature work together to create a truss, i.e., the core, to act as a stable anchor from which the arms and legs pull from to create movement.
For the core to function effectively and efficiently, we must be in a relatively neutral spine where the bottom of the ribs are parallel with the position of the pelvis. Remember the halfway point between JLo and plumber — how could you forget? Well, this is it!
When the positioning is correct, we’re able to breathe abdominally, expanding the abdominal wall 360 degrees generating the intra-abdominal pressure required for quintessential spinal stabilization, not just oxygenation of the lungs.
Similar to how a piston drops down into a cylinder of an engine when we abdominally breathe, the diaphragm muscle contracts downward into the abdomen creating intra-abdominal pressure. This internal pressure pushes against the opposing pressure of the abdominal wall, stabilizing the spine which sits right in between. This pressurization of the abdominal “canister” is what establishes an ideal core for its purpose of acting as an anchor for movement.
How does this relate to back pain and pregnancy?
Training your core in a way that strengthens it as a pressurized canister prepares your body for physical burden or pregnancy, childbirth, as well as bouncing back postpartum.
Many women suffer pre and postpartum physical impairments — not just back pain — such as uncontrolled urination, diastasis recti, and pelvic floor dysfunction. These problems are symptoms, not causes, of core function compromise.
The good news is the common pre and postpartum physical frustrations are treatable and preventable!
Similar to how your 3-month old is learning how to load her/his core, we can emulate the same position as adults to retrain a movement pattern which is ingrained in our neurology. The 3-month old's position is a phenomenal, low impact way to begin retraining your core function. Don’t be fooled, when executed correctly, it’s much harder than it looks!
Since the dawn of time when humans roamed the Earth with mammoths, wielding spears, we’ve been moving. Only in the last 100 years have we been the most sedentary since our species' existence.
We used to have to hunt for food, where now we have the capability to order a meal to our couch just by lifting a finger. To combat modern conveniences, you may have noticed these places where bunches of people pack in at all hours to ride ridiculous machines. Yeah, gyms weren’t really a thing until 50 years ago. Back in the day, “working out” was referred to as a job, getting around places, hobbies, and housework.
We are made to move and move often.
As I’ve been told, it’s quite hard to stay active due to the myriad of physical changes experienced throughout the pregnancy journey. However, being active does not mean you need to spend dedicated time “working out” in a gym.
Simply, making it a point to move and frequently change positions throughout the day, especially in the workplace, can make all the difference regarding the muscle and joint pains magnified by the human(s) growing in your body!
Standing, squatting, kneeling, sitting, walking — heck, crawling — are all movements to be practiced throughout the day to avoid the negative effects associated with prolonged postures and positions like slouching in front of your computer screen.
Other Simple Strategies
Drink more water. Hydration is healthy and the extra water makes you get up more often to use the restroom!
Go for walks. Simple low-level activity is great for your physical health and mental/emotional health alike.
Use a standing desk, preferably a convertible desk so you can easily change positions, from sitting to standing to kneeling, with the squeeze of a hand.
Giving birth is one of the (if not the) most physically demanding athletic events a woman will ever experience.
Just as an athlete would train and prepare adequately for competition, a mother should train and prep for childbirth as well.
A lack of preparation, either pre or postpartum, can lead to common physical frustrations such as back pain, sciatica, uncontrolled urination, diastasis recti, pelvic floor pain and dysfunction, as well as general muscle and joint pain.
However, a mother doesn’t need to be a gym regular to prepare for pregnancy in the workplace and childbirth, whether in the hospital or at home. By applying the three simple strategies above, not only will most be able to avoid the frustrating muscle and joint pains commonly plaguing soon-to-be mothers, but they’ll be physically prepared for childbirth and the recovery that follows.