How I sorted out my back ready for pregnancy

Back pain is the worst pain in the world. I’m really confident that childbirth can’t be worse. When my back has been at its worst in the past, I haven’t been able to move for days at a time without being reduced to tears of agony – it’s utterly debilitating. And as carrying the weight of a baby around is not exactly the best thing for bad backs, I was really determined to improve my situation before getting pregnant. As a result, I’m pretty much an encyclopedia of ways to improve a lifelong back problem.

First of all, it’s important that you ignore everything I’m about to say until you’ve been to a doctor. I’ve always suffered from back pain in a particular area on the left side of of my lower back, but I don’t have anything skeletal causing it, like curvature of the spine. It’s just muscular, and is probably caused by an old injury or trauma that I don’t even remember. Yours might be something more serious, so if you haven’t been to the doctor, go right now.

That’s how I started too – the first time my back got really bad, I was referred by the doctor to a physiotherapist. Their treatment made absolutely no difference at all, and nor did the treatment of a very expensive sports massage specialist that I saw afterwards a few times. However, the one wondrous things that the physio did do for me was to recommend that I try pilates.

I’ve already written about pilates and how wonderful it is, and how it will help when I’m actually pregnant. But it really has changed my life, firstly in the sense that my back and core muscles are much stronger which should make me less likely to get injured, but more importantly because it gives me a set of exercises to follow which really help to loosen my back when it’s bad.

I had a perfect test for this on holiday in Canada last winter – I had a bad fall skiing, and, aside from brusing my coccyx, I also jarred my back badly. At first I could barely stand up, but after doing lots of pilates that evening and the following day, I recovered really quickly. It was just tiny movements – that was all I could do – but they kept the muscles from seizing up, and gradually I could increase them until I got back to normal movement.

It’s really important, though, to find a good pilates teacher. Mine (www.pilates4life.co.uk) follows the Menezes method, which is based on a really solid understanding of anatomy and physiology. This is really important if you have an injury as otherwise you can hurt yourself more. Plus some pilates is just like a relaxation class – that can be valuable, but for me it’s not a good use of my time.

The second best thing I did was visit a chiropractor (www.ruislipchiropractor.co.uk). I’m really not a fan of some things that chiropractors do – it can be a bit New Age. But I can’t deny that mine has made a decisive difference to my back. His treatment has been based on the fact that my pelvis tends to slip out of alignment – and that’s something I can see with my own eyes, because when my back hurts my waist isn’t level (ie. the bit that curves in is at a different height on each side). He fixed this by cracking something in my back, and since then the standard everyday stiffness has hugely decreased and I haven’t had a serious episode of back pain (touch wood). I visit him every couple of months to maintain my good alignment.

My chiropractor also prescribed me custom insoles called orthotics which I wear in my shoes – I love wearing these, and find them immensely comfortable. I have fallen arches and a condition in my hips which makes my feet turn inwards, so my walking posture has been hugely improved by the insoles. This is a long term investment – I paid £200, but the insoles are guaranteed for life.

So, my pilates teacher and my chiropractor have been the biggest miracle workers in fixing my back, along with one very good physiotherapist (an NHS one, ironically, rather than any of the expensive private ones I saw initially !) who taught me some stretches to try and lengthen my hamstrings. I try to do them often, and it defiintely helps – tight hamstrings are one of the main causes of back pain, and sitting at a desk all day as I do really shortens them.

Aside from that, I’ve made lifestyle changes like not doing any activity crouched over the floor, like playing board games or wrapping presents. I got a new chair at work, and I try to stand up very often instead of sitting down for long periods. I wouldn’t say that I’m completely pain free, but at my best I’m 90% instead of 70%, and the bad times are few and far between.

It’s been a multi-pronged attack, and I think I’ve won! It’s one most important ways in which I’ve got ready for having a baby, and I’m proud of the changes I’ve made to feel better, healthier and more mobile, and consequently happier!

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Conception support vitamin supplements: yes or no?

We all know that taking a folic acid suppliement is really important as lots of folic acid helps babies to develop healthy nervous systems. But what about other vitamins and minerals? Should I be taking a special conception support supplement?

I am a fish-eating vegetarian (my parents stopped eating meat when I was a child, so it’s mainly habit rather than ethics) and I’ve always taken a multivitamin just in case I’m missing anything important in my diet. But I had no idea that specific supplements existed for conception support – for men as well as women – until I stumbled upon them in Boots.

As part of our slightly paranoid desire to do everything possible to make a healthy baby, my husband and I thought we’d better get dosed up. He ordered some Conception for Men tablets from Healthspan – http://www.healthspan.co.uk/pregnancy/pregnapure-conception-for-men/productdetail-p3197037-c3167.aspx – and I bought some Conception Support tablets in Boots – http://www.boots.com/en/Boots-Pharmaceuticals-Conception-Support-30-Tablets-_1161201/. Today I had a good look at the ingredients on both packets.

The men’s supplement is full of crazy stuff that you’ve never heard of. What on earth are Maca and L-Arginine? (Answers: Maca is a South American plant that enhances ‘endurance’ and acts as an aphrodisiac (!) and L-Arginine is an amino acid that’s supposed to combat erectile dysfunction.) I’m not trying to boost my husband’s ego, but he’s a normal healthy 31 year old, and he just doesn’t need these things to fulfill his part of the baby-making process! The other ingredients are standard multivitamins and minerals, so he’s going to go back to his normal tablets when he finishes this box.

As for my Boots tablets for women, they look much more sensible – 200% RDA of folic acid, plus all the other standard vitamins and nothing I haven’t heard of! The great thing about them is that they don’t contain anything that would be bad if I did get pregnant, like Vitamin A. Pregnant women shouldn’t take Vitamin A supplements as too much can cause birth defects, and the damage is often done in the early weeks or months of pregnancy when you might not even realise that you’re pregnant. My conception support tablets don’t contain Vitamin A or retinol (another form of the vitamin) so this isn’t an issue. I think I’ll definitely carry on taking them.

What about the benefits of other vitamins and minerals in the conception supplements? A study in December 2011 suggested that conception multivitamins do boost fertility amongst women with fertility problems – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8928234/Women-trying-to-conceive-should-take-vitamins-researchers.html.- but there’s no evidence to say that they’re helpful for normal conception. I get the impression that the best conception support supplements are just normal multivitamins that we’re encouraged to take now because nutrition is particularly important when you want to conceive. Unless you’re a man with an actual sexual dysfunction – in which case I’d drop the Maca and L-Arginine and get to the doctor – you should probably just eat healthily, and take a folic acid supplement and a multivitamin without Vitamin A.

And when I’m actually pregnant, I’ll have to do all this research all over again for pregnancy vitamins! It’s a pretty busy and confusing market.

How hard should you exercise when trying for a baby?

Over the last six months we have been seeing a personal trainer once a week – his name’s Jim and he used to be an army physical instructor. He’s so fantastic – he really keeps us motivated. We do circuits that combine strength training with lots of running for cardiovascular fitness, and I am fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my whole life. It’s awful and painful, but no pain no gain and all that. I also play tennis and go to a pilates class once a week and walk to and from work (a mile each way) every day – so I’m pretty fit.

I have been worrying about whether doing this high intensity exercise with the trainer once a week could be damaging my chances of getting pregnant – I know that being fit boosts fertility, but am I risking an embryo not implanting properly if I’m straining around? Plus, lifting anything heavy is supposed to increase the risk of miscarriage, isn’t it?

Well, I’ve done some research today and it sounds like it’s OK to carry on with proper exercise whilst pregnant – and that exercise is in fact a good thing. Here’s the NHS website on this: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/pregnancy-exercise.aspx#close. I found the following three points to be the most useful advice from this page:

  • don’t increase the intensity of what you’re used to – so carry on with the level of exercise you were doing before pregnancy;
  • you need to be able to hold a conversation while you exercise, otherwise it’s too strenuous for when you’re pregnant;
  • you shouldn’t lie on your back after 16 weeks as it can make you feel faint.

There are also some good suggestions for exercises to do – lots of them seem to be pilates based. In general I would recommend pilates to anyone, pregnant or not – it has changed my life and helped me cure a back problem. More about that in a later post! But it seems that, for pregnancy, pilates also really helps to stabilise the pelvis and can help avoid Pubic Symphysis Disfunction. My pilates teacher has written a great article on this, and on exercise in general while pregnant, called Pilates 4 Pregnancy: http://www.pilates4life.co.uk/is-pilates-for-me/pilates4pregnancy – it talks about being careful with posture and lists a few exercises that can be really dangerous to do, like sit ups.

No more sit ups for me then. What a tragedy…

The What to Expect website has some good information about strength training: http://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/keeping-fit/options-for-everyone-strength-and-toning.aspx. Again this suggests that I can carry on with weight training as long as I’m not straining or holding my breath.

I’m concluding that I can carry on exercising with my trainer, Jim, but that I should lower the intensity of what I’m doing. He suggested that lots of brisk walking, swimming and tennis would be good. Sounds perfect!

I’m still not sure about exercise during conception. Am I going to ruin my chances for a successful implantation? Everything I’ve read so far suggests that only excessive exercise would have a negative effect, and only then because it might reduce body fat so much that foetal and placental growth are affected. I can’t find anything about impact or stretching affecting conception, so I’m going to try not to worry and carry on exercising – I’ll just make sure I’m not pushing myself to the limits.