Understanding and managing sore ribs in pregnancy
Are you pregnant, and suffering from pain in and around your rib cage? Well you are definitely not alone – it is probably the second most common pregnancy-related complaint that we receive in our clinic, The Fix Program. If you're wondering what the most common is, it is pelvic girdle pain.
Why do my ribs hurt in pregnancy?
During your pregnancy your body produces high levels of the hormone relaxin. This makes your ligaments stretchy, flexible, and pliable, and this very important to help allow your body to expand with the growth of your baby and get ready for the stretching required for giving birth in your pelvis. However, unfortunately there is increased laxity in ALL your ligaments, including those between each rib, and between your spine and breast bones. The ribs can easily be pushed into extreme and uncomfortable postures as the ligaments and tissues surrounding them stretch out and become painful.
Once you enter your third trimester, and as your baby becomes ever larger, the uterus expands right up beneath your rib cage. The lowest few ribs expand and flare out in response to your growing baby, putting them into a position they have never been before, dragging your soft tissues with them. This can definitely be a recipe for discomfort!
This picture illustrates the changing shape of the ribcage in pregnancy, called the rib flare. This added stretching can place stress in between the ribs, or at their attachments to the spine at your back or breastbone at your front.
What does pregnancy rib pain feel like?
- Pain in the ribs on one side more than the other
- Tenderness to the touch
- Pain in sitting, bending forward, or slouching
- Painful coughing, sneezing, laughing, or deep breathing
How can I manage the pain and discomfort associated with pregnancy rib pain?
Often in pregnancy, many aches are short term as the resilient body adjusts and gets used to its new postures and physical stresses. This is also the case with rib pain. If you do suffer from rib pain, consider trying any or the following common treatment strategies.
- Keep your posture straight and tall as often as you can – avoid sitting for long periods, especially in a slouched posture pulling on those ribs and ligaments even more.
- Use heat or cold packs for 20mins at a time, whatever eases your pain more.
- Move and stretch regularly! Remind yourself with a half hourly alarm, or even use the red dot postural reminders to make sure you do it often.
- In some cases some gentle sports taping of the ribs may be helpful.
- When sleeping, support yourself with pillows to get as comfortable as possible.
- When stretching, target your thoracic spine, shoulders, and rib cage – just like we do in our pre-natal Pilates classes. Try the standing wall twist, or the Feldenkrais 'bow and arrow' for gentle free flowing movement of the upper trunk.
- In a physiotherapy appointment we can provide massage that can relieve the pain from tight muscles while realigning your ribs and spinal joints as needed. Book in to see us, and we will also tailor an effective home exercise plan just for you.
When am I likely to feel better?
Each of the above measures should provide some relief almost straight away – the more you do, and the more often you do them, the better. However, some women may find that the pain will continue or return very quickly, especially in the third trimester. The good news is that this won't last forever! At the 36-week mark the baby will start to drop lower into your pelvis, meaning some of the pressure will ease and often the rib discomfort along with it. For the minority who feel pain all the way through to delivery, it should completely disappear soon afterwards as your relaxin levels return to normal and your body doesn't have to make room for a whole new person any longer!
For those who experience it, this rib pain is all part and parcel of growing your new child. We always want to know if you are struggling with this all too common pregnancy symptom, so please do not hesitate to call and book in with one of our Physios here at The Fix Program.