Exercise therapy: Coping with pregnancy related discomforts

Most of the musculoskeletal problems that arise during pregnancy can be prevented and treated by physiotherapy. Individualized physical therapy programs have been found more effective than group sessions for the reduction of pain and sick leave due to back pain in pregnancy.

The most common, pregnancy-related problems which benefit from physiotherapy are musculoskeletal problems like back pain; pelvic girdle pain (approx. 50% prevalence in pregnancy(Britt et al)), thoracic pain, nerve compression syndromes (e.g. carpal tunnel), stress incontinence and diastasis rectus abdominus.

Pelvic girdle pain and back pain

According to an article, published by Artal et al, most of the musculoskeletal problems that pregnant women experience are related to the altered postures with women getting heavier, while ligaments and muscles relax and stretch respectively. Whilst it may not be possible to stop this process from occurring, it is possible to minimize these maladaptive postures. With posture advise and through strengthening the core muscles the weakened structural integrity can be somewhat restored. This can help reduce or eliminate many of the common discomforts associated with pregnancy and improve postpartum recovery, particularly those associated with back problems (Artal et a and Hammer et al).

In addition to changes in posture, development of abnormal movement patterns is also very commonly seen, in particular during the second and third trimester. The resultant effect of abnormal movement will be pain during bed and car transfers, sit-stands and with walking. Gentle exercises to strengthen the core muscles, hamstrings and deep gluteal muscles combined with soft tissue release of the overactive piriformis and advice of normal movements is often all that is required to reduce or completely eliminate pain.

Nerve Pathologies

Exercises to mobilize the nerves within the nervous system can also be advised for women with nerve compression.


Incontinence (urine more so but faecal too) is a very common problem that may affect women during pregnancy. Neglecting the importance of pelvic floor muscles may result in women going on to develop incontinence during the pregnancy and at a later stage in life. Strengthening these muscles during pregnancy can also help develop the ability to relax and control the muscles in preparation for labour and delivery.

Ongoing strengthening post-delivery is highly recommended to promote the healing of perineal tissues, increase the strength of the pelvic floor muscles, and help these muscles return to a healthy state, including increased urinary control. Incontinence at any stage can also be affected by a person’s lifestyle, occupation and diet and therefore advise must be provided in addition to exercise for such women.

Diastasis rectus abdominus

Traditional stomach crunches and sit-ups have actually been found to do more harm than good by increasing the separation of the rectus abdominus sheath. This is due to excessive exertion of tummy muscles that are stretching during the natural course of pregnancy. A study done by C. Cynthia et al at the Columbia University School of Physical Therapy showed that pregnant women who did not exercise had a 90% incidence of diastasis recti as compared with 12.5% in the exercising group who used their transverse abdominis during exercise. What this study highlights is the importance of exercise, but that too the correct form of exercise.

Not only antenatally but pilates based exercises to reduce the separation of these muscles postnatally is also often prescribed.

Additional benefits of exercise

Exercise also helps to ease the process of labour by training breathing control and strengthening the muscles required for labour. Exercise helps combat pregnancy-related depression by improving body image and increasing self-esteem. It also aids in a faster recovery following delivery.

Considerations for Exercise prescription and physiotherapy intervention

Prior to exercise prescription knowledge regarding potential risks, awareness of baseline norms (e.g. in BP) and the assessment of the physical ability of the individual to engage in various activities is required. Given the potential risks, albeit rare, thorough physical evaluation of each pregnant woman should be conducted before any exercise programme is recommended. Individualized evaluation and exercise prescription by physiotherapists which includes intensity, frequency, and duration of the exercise seems to be important determinants of its beneficial effects. A women’s health physiotherapist specializing in issues associated with pregnancy can recommend exercises for pregnant and post-partum women after an assessment which generally consists of an analysis of the following:

  • Joint mobility and symmetry
  • Muscle imbalances and strengths
  • Neurological evaluation
  • Evaluation of functional limitations

Additional Physiotherapy treatment techniques to exercise commonly include:

  • Pain management.
  • Techniques to aid joint and soft tissue flexibility.
  • Stress relief and relaxation training.
  • Recommendations for sleeping and birth positions
  • Posture correction and ergonomic advice
  • Postpartum rehabilitation

It is also very important to provide women with knowledge of instances where exercise is detrimental to their health and the babies.


The 2003 Canadian clinical practice guidelines for exercise in pregnancy and the postpartum period, issued jointly by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, provide more specific recommendations. Previously sedentary women should be counselled to begin with 15 mins of continuous exercise three times per week and work toward a goal of 30 mins four times per week.

Aerobic activities and activities that promote musculoskeletal fitness are part of an overall exercise prescription. Typically, aerobic exercise can consist of any activities that use large muscle groups in a continuous rhythmic manner and the intensity very importantly should be based on scales which measure the rate of perceived exertion. Exercises for musculoskeletal fitness include strength training and flexibility exercises.

Specific Stability Exercises

Kegel Exercises

Kegel exercises, also called pelvic floor exercises, help strengthen the muscles especially the levator ani that supports the bladder, uterus, and bowels

Intensive training of the pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy seems to facilitate rather than to obstruct labour. It could prevent a prolonged second stage in one in eight women. (7)A Cochrane review of 43 randomized trials concluded that PFM exercise was consistently better than no treatment or placebo and should be offered as first-line treatment for women with stress incontinence.

Abdominal bracing exercise

This exercise requires the co-contraction of the transversus abdominis and multifidus that wrap right around the abdomen like a corset. It helps protect the spine which is under the constant stress of the growing uterus, postural changes and reduced ligamentous stability. A study was done to compare the effects of the contraction of the transversus abdominis, independently of the other abdominals; with the bracing action that used all the lateral abdominal muscles on sacroiliac joint laxity. Joint laxity values decreased significantly in all individuals during both muscle patterns (P < 0.001). However, interestingly isolating transversus abdominis contraction decreased sacroiliac joint laxity (or rather increased sacroiliac joint stability) to a significantly greater degree than the general abdominal exercise pattern (P < 0.0260) Richardson et al)

Pelvic tilting combined with abdominal bracing are essential exercises for maintaining good posture and to prevent backache that is due to bad posture.

Mobility Exercises

Pelvic tilt

Pelvic tilts strengthen the muscles of the abdomen and lower back, increase hip mobility. Pelvic tilts are particularly effective in relieving lumbar pain.(J. Sabino et al)


Suboccipital extensors, pectorals, hip flexors and back extensors are tight due to an increased kyphosis, cervical and lumbar lordosis in pregnancy and can be the source of thoracic and posterior pelvic pain. In a study by Yeo et al that compared walking and stretching exercise, it was found that regular stretching exercises may promote endogenous antioxidants among women at risk for preeclampsia. The incidence of preeclampsia was 14.6% (95% CI, 5.6 to 29.2) among the walkers and 2.6% (95% CI; 0.07 to 13.8) among the stretchers

Warning signs to terminate exercise while pregnant

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Dyspnoea before exertion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Calf pain or swelling (need to rule out thrombophlebitis)
  • Preterm labour
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Amniotic fluid leakage


Pregnancy should not be a state of confinement, and pregnant women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to continue and engage in physical activities. Despite the fact that pregnancy is associated with profound anatomical and physiological changes, exercise can help prevent and combat many of the complications.

If your suffering from any of the above problems, or wish to seek further advice about excercises, consult a women’s health physiotherapist


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