In a strange coincidence of biology, pregnant women think about visiting the bathroom roughly as often as the average man thinks about sex.
A healthy pregnancy is nothing short of miraculous. Here is your ordinary body literally blooming to accommodate a new life. But with that transformation sometimes comes … well, itchiness. And nausea. Backaches and leg cramps. And let’s not forget hemorrhoids. Or the 3,000 trips you take to the bathroom every night.
These are not necessarily indicators that you are having a “difficult” pregnancy. They’re just your body’s way of coping with the extraordinary task of growing a new life within the boundaries of your existing one. Fortunately, many of pregnancy’s little annoyances can be alleviated — if not eliminated — easily, safely and without medication. Following is our laundry list of nagging pregnancy symptoms, their causes and self-help tips on getting relief.
1. Bladder control
In a strange coincidence of biology, pregnant women think about visiting the bathroom roughly as often as the average man thinks about sex — every 17 seconds. Your circulatory volume is up. Your uterus is crowding your bladder. Ideally, you’re drinking more fluids than normal. The pressure is on. No actual cures here, but a few helpful tips:
- Do Kegel exercises (contract, hold and then relax your pelvic-floor muscles) whenever you think of it to prevent “stress incontinence,” or leakage.
- Don’t decrease your overall fluid intake, but do limit it in the evening if nighttime urination is a problem.
- Empty your bladder completely. Early in pregnancy, do this by leaning forward while urinating. In the third trimester, lift your belly slightly as you urinate.
The severity and duration of “morning sickness” (which defies its name by striking at all hours) varies, but mild to moderate nausea usually tapers off between the 12th and 16th weeks. Its cause remains a mystery, though surging hormones are the leading suspects.
In addition to the more traditional advice below, obstetrician Jeffrey Thurston, M.D., an associate clinical professor of obstetrics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and author of 1000 Questions About Your Pregnancy (Summit Publishing Group, 1997), recommends the red-hot candies known as Atomic Fireballs. “They probably bombard your brain with signals that your mouth is on fire,” Thurston muses. The upshot: “Your brain doesn’t have time to signal nausea.” Also helpful:
- Wear acupressure wrist bands, available in drugstores.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. If soda crackers and bananas are all you can stomach, they’re better than nothing.
- Drink eight to 10 glasses of water every day. Then refer to pesky problem #1.
- Stop and smell the lemons. Seal a slice or two in a plastic bag for a quick whiff on the run.
- Steep two quarter-size pieces of fresh ginger root in boiling water for five minutes to make a stomach-settling ginger tea. Or learn to love ginger ale and gingersnap cookies.
- Eat a piece of fruit or a few crackers before getting out of bed, and/or have a high-protein snack before bedtime to raise your morning blood-sugar level.
- If your prenatal vitamin is turning your stomach, ask your doctor if you can switch to a folate-only supplement until your nausea subsides.
- Consult your doctor if vomiting becomes severe. In a small percentage of women, it can be a health-threatening medical condition.
A fish belongs in water. The Eiffel Tower belongs in Paris. And stomach acid belongs in your stomach. Unfortunately, pregnancy hormones affect the sphincter that forms a barrier between the esophagus and stomach, allowing acids to percolate upward. The plot thickens as your growing uterus crowds your digestive organs. To help douse the fire:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Chew your food thoroughly. Eat every bite as slowly as possible.
- Avoid spicy or greasy foods.
- Remain upright for at least an hour after eating.
- Keep your upper body as upright as possible when you sleep by propping yourself up with pillows or elevating the head of your bed.
- When heartburn strikes, have some milk or yogurt.
- Ask your doctor about taking calcium-based antacids.
4. Constipation and hemorrhoids
These two nuisances often work in tandem. Pregnancy hormones, abetted by certain vitamin and iron supplements and, sometimes, a nausea-inspired diet of crackers and milk, can make your digestive tract sluggish. Then constipation begets hemorrhoids, which can develop from straining. Your burgeoning uterus also may contribute to hemorrhoids by decreasing the amount of blood flow into and out of your pelvic region. To keep things moving:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Prunes, however unglamorous, really do work.
- Eat yogurt to aid digestion.
- Don’t delay when you get the urge to move your bowels.
- Avoid straining during bowel movements. Keeping your feet on a step stool or box will help.
- When hemorrhoids flare up, use flushable wipes instead of toilet paper, and sit in a shallow tub of very warm water.
- Do Kegel exercises regularly to increase blood flow to your pelvic area.
- Ask your doctor if a change in your iron supplement might help.
Pregnancy hormones loosen your joints, while your ballooning breasts and belly play havoc with your center of gravity. No wonder backaches are among pregnancy’s most common complaints. “There’s some controversy as to whether you can tone up a stretched muscle, so it’s important for women to start building their abdominal muscles [which support the back] early in pregnancy, before they get stretched out,” says fitness trainer and childbirth education specialist Bonnie Berk, R.N., founder of Motherwell Maternity Health and Fitness in Carlisle, Pa. Additionally:
- When possible, don’t stand or sit for prolonged periods.
- When you do stand or sit, rest one foot on a box, stool, low shelf or a couple of telephone books. In the kitchen, pull out a low drawer.
- If you sleep on your side (the left is preferable during pregnancy to allow for maximum flow of blood and nutrients to the placenta), keep your knees bent and put a pillow between them; tuck one under your abdomen, too, if it needs support. If you sleep on your back, use pillows to support your thighs and back.
- Get massages. (Make sure you find a qualified therapist.)
- Stick to flat-heeled, supportive shoes.
- Bend at the hips, not the waist, and lift with your legs bent so you’re not using your back.
- Do pelvic tilts.
- Berk’s tip for toning abs: Walk through water deep enough to cover your belly. “The resistance of the water helps tone the muscles,” she says.
- Consider a “belly bra” or other supportive device.
Pregnancy increases your body’s fluid volume, and often your system can’t keep up with it; edema — bloating and puffiness — is the swell result. To keep yourself flush:
- Though it may sound contradictory, keep drinking plenty of liquids. Water is always best.
- Avoid prolonged standing.
- Don’t wear tight shoes and stockings — and no thigh-highs or knee-highs. Do try maternity support stockings, and put them on before getting out of bed in the morning.
- Cut down on salty foods.
- Lie on your side and elevate your legs. But don’t put your legs up while sitting; Thurston says you’ll compress the veins in your groin and make matters worse.
- Alert your doctor if swelling becomes bothersome. It may be a sign of pregnancy-induced hypertension.
7. Leg cramps
You’ve finally positioned each of the 52 pillows you need to get comfortable, and you’ve drifted off. Suddenly, your calf seizes up and you yelp out in pain. Weight gain and impaired circulation might be to blame. Follow these steps:
To prevent leg cramps, Thurston suggests a regular calf-stretching routine: Facing a wall, stand about a foot away and lean against it with your feet flat on the floor for 15 seconds.
To relieve a cramp while it’s happening, flex your foot upward, or have your partner firmly massage the calf.
Check your calcium intake; deficiency may be a contributing factor. Berk recommends cutting back on soft drinks, as the phosphorous in soda may affect the body’s phosphorous-calcium balance.
Keep circulation going with regular cardiovascular exercise.
8. Carpal tunnel syndrome
If your palm, thumb, index finger, middle finger, half your ring finger — but not your pinkie — feel numb, tingly or painful, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a common side effect of the swelling and postural changes of pregnancy. Relief is at hand:
- The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that yoga can help alleviate CTS. “Yoga may counteract some of the postural changes in your shoulders and upper back that contribute to nerve compression,” Berk says. “It also improves flexibility and helps you relax.”
- Buy carpal-tunnel splints, available at any pharmacy, to wear at night. “If you put them on before going to bed, a lot of the pain and inflammation will be gone by morning,” says Thurston. “You may look like a lobster, but you’ll feel better.”
9. Varicose veins
During pregnancy, your veins carry a double load, contending with increased blood volume and decreased or sluggish venous circulation. For women who inherit the propensity, varicose veins in the legs, vulva or rectum are the result. Fight back with these strategies:
- Keep circulation moving with regular exercise.
- Don’t sit for prolonged periods and don’t cross your legs.
- Don’t stand for long, either. While standing, lift your heels, flex your ankles and work your calf muscles so they can help pump blood back to your heart.
- Stop wearing tight clothing, as well as thigh-high and knee-high stockings.
- Put on maternity support stockings before getting out of bed in the morning.
- Raise the foot of your bed 3–4 inches.
- Lie on your side (preferably the left) and elevate your legs whenever possible.
10. Chronic sinus congestion
As hormonal changes dry out your mucous membranes, your sinuses may protest by staging what seems like one long, stuffy cold. The best nonmedical help comes from added moisture:
- Use saline nose spray or drops.
- Use a humidifier, especially at night.
- Lean over a bowl of hot water with a towel over your head. Or run the shower for a few minutes and inhale the steam.
11. Skin problems
Your skin’s response to pregnancy depends on a number of different factors, chief among them heredity and hormones. To minimize discomfort (and perhaps severity):
- If you’ve developed dark patches on your face, use sunblock to prevent more.
- Try benzoyl peroxide lotion for acne.
- Lotions and oils probably won’t prevent stretch marks, but they can combat itching and other discomfort.
- To avoid abdominal itching, wear non-irritating, natural-fiber clothing; switch to a dye- and perfume-free laundry detergent; and soak in an oatmeal bath (available at drugstores).