If you’ve ever given birth or witnessed the event first-hand, you know it’s one of the most overwhelmingly painful yet breathtakingly beautiful and love-filled experiences in life.
Right now, it is increasingly being viewed as an athletic event of monumental strength and endurance.
“Running the gamut of trying to conceive, be pregnant and give birth — that’s a triathlon,” said Gabby Orcutt, a mother of two who has now become a certified doula and lactation consultant. “It all becomes the ultimate survivor test: hours of labor and birth.”
Orcutt, like many women LifeZette talked to for this story, believes health care providers have for far too long ignored the toll the birthing process takes on a woman’s body.
They may be onto something. A recent study from the University of Michigan likens many birth injuries to sports injuries in the way that they should be diagnosed, specifically using new imaging techniques.
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Childbirth is arguably one of the most traumatic events a woman can endure, yet it has not been viewed, until now, through the lens of sport injury. The study from Michigan reveals that about 15 percent of women sustain injuries in their pelvis that don’t ever fully heal.
“If an athlete sustained a similar injury in the field, she’d be in an MRI machine in an instant,” Janis Miller, an associate professor at the Universisty of Michigan School of Nursing said in a statement on the school’s website.
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“We have this thing where we tell women, ‘Well, you’re six weeks postpartum and now we don’t need to see you — you’ll be fine.’ But not all women feel fine after six weeks nor are ready to go back to work, and they aren’t crazy.”
Miller and a team of midwives, radiologists and obstetricians studied a group of pregnant women at high risk for pelvic muscle tears. They used MRIs to diagnose injury and to track healing time, and what they found was not what they expected.
Previously, Miller said, experts thought postpartum pelvic injuries were primarily nerve-to-muscle related. But the images in the study “showed that one-quarter of women showed fluid in the pubic bone marrow or sustained fractures similar to a sports-related stress fracture, and two-thirds showed excess fluid in the muscle, which indicates injury similar to a severe muscle strain. Forty-one percent sustained pelvic muscle tears, with the muscle detaching partially or fully from the pubic bone.”
While Orcutt says every birth experience is completely different, she adds that this is a problem, because “no one discusses what you can do to alleviate the pain or strengthen your pelvis post-delivery.”
Kegels are the most commonly prescribed exercise for women to heal, and most women recover from pelvic injuries within eight months. But these exercises or situations don’t apply to everyone.
“Certain movements would still send shock waves through my pelvis and down my legs. I thought it was never going to go away,” Orcutt said of her experience giving birth.
Some health care providers are paying attention. They’re now offering insights to moms as they plan ahead, hoping to prevent some of the pain.
Maria Brooks, president of Lamaze International, agrees with the study results, but adds there are related injuries that can happen after childbirth as well. The most common, Brooks says, is poor muscle tone of the pelvic floor and a prolonged healing time, especially for certain deliveries.
“The pelvis and its joints are meant to move. The pelvis gets wide. However, sometimes the pubic bone can separate, causing excruciating pain during and after childbirth,” said Brooks, who adds there are therapists who focus on this type of pain.
“Not until it’s really bad do some say something,” Brooks told LifeZette. She explained that many women are embarrassed and think this is their new normal. “It’s a true and common situation, but it can be resolved. New moms do not have to suffer in silence.”
Brooks advocates for women to speak with their providers and discuss options. Other experts, meanwhile, say all new moms could benefit from a pelvic MRI.
“You need to know what is damaged to understand how best to treat it,” said Jill Bigalow, a California-based mother and the inventor of Mama Strut, a pelvic brace for new mothers. She commends the University of Michigan for its study and says that until now, “a new mom who had pain aches and other issues was viewed as just complaining about something natural or something she should just deal with.” She added, however, that what the study recommends is still far from common procedure.
Miller and her team of researchers say they hope their study “derails the one-size-fits-all approach to treating postpartum injuries so that women will stop blaming themselves if problems linger.”