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Improving Mommy: Physical therapy can help new mothers recover after pregnancy

Press Photo by Katherine Grandstrand Savannah Olson, a women’s health physical therapist at RehabVisions in Dickinson, show the muscles of the pelvic floor that weaken during pregnancy on this pelvic model Wednesday, Feb. 19 at RehabVisions.

Dickinson is booming. Not only is there an oil boom, building boom and population boom, there’s also a baby boom.

Births are up at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center — there were almost 400 babies born there in 2012 — and the hospital recently experienced a mini baby boom with almost 20 births in the week between Valentine’s Day and Friday.

All of these new babies mean a lot of new moms dealing with a changed body that often times does not bounce back to its pre-baby shape — at least not by itself.

It’s not uncommon for women to experience pain as their body changes, but sometimes the pain doesn’t go away, said Savannah Olson, a women’s health physical therapist at RehabVisions in Dickinson.

“They just want to be able to do what they were able to previously do,” Olson said. “With the changes that occur with pregnancy and all the different changes in our joints that occur because of the extra laxity to allow for that growing belly we need to provide some stability.”

Pain that remains long after delivery is a common concern some of her patients have, along with pain and discomfort when trying the exercise, and some urinary incontinence.

“Probably the most common is ‘I assumed all of my problems would resolve once I had my child, and they’re still here,’” Olson said. “That can cause a lot of frustration.”

Often times, women are so caught up in taking care of the new baby and getting settled in their new lives that their health becomes secondary, Olson said.

“Even though the focus is on the new baby, we have to take care of mom, because she’s taking care of everyone else,” Olson said.

The same can be said about doctor’s visits, said Audrey McMacken, an OB/GYN at the Sanford Health Clinic in Dickinson. Most women are really good about getting babies back to the clinic for all of the recommended check-ups, and getting themselves back for their six-week post-delivery check-up.

“It would be interesting to see people who did physical therapy within pregnancy for pain or stuff — if they make it back for that, or things like people who go in for prenatal massages. I wonder if they’re doing that for themselves after baby or if they’re just sort of taking care of baby,” McMacken said, adding that life sometimes gets in the way.

Physical therapy doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment, McMacken said.

“Sometimes, one or two visits to teach them to do exercises themselves on their own and they’re done,” McMacken said. “It takes a little effort on the patient’s part to do them, but it’s better than pain medication or dealing with pain and not doing anything.”

Working with a physical therapist can get a woman set up for success, making sure she’s doing the right exercises, like Kegels, and doing them correctly, Olson said.

“Sometimes it’s nice — once you deliver — to have that step before you get back to the personal trainer or before you go back to your exercise class,” Olson said. “A lot of women — and I think this is where some of the frustration comes in — they deliver, they wait the six to eight weeks until they begin more aggressive exercise. They go to the gym, and they get very upset and frustrated because now they’re having pain in places they didn’t have pain. They’re not able to do the things that they were able to do.”

Often times, the chain works backwards, Olson said. After frustration at the gym, many women are eventually referred to physical therapy, when a visit to a physical therapist could have helped all along.

“It’s nice if we can get women before they make that big step,” Olson said.

In baby creating and in sports, the best offense is a good defense, meaning women who go into pregnancy in better shape are more likely to recover and get back to that shape quicker.

“Knowing that our body is going to go through this period of extreme change the more stability we can add, the better,” Olson said.

Doing exercises to strengthen the abdominals and pelvic floor muscles before conceiving and continuing exercise — while at a more moderate pace, as advised by a doctor — can even make delivery easier.

“In the past it was, ‘OK, a woman’s pregnant, she can’t do anything,’” Olson said. “But it’s actually better to be physically active while you’re pregnant.”

Other than bringing it up during their annual exam, not many people make a special appointment for pre-conception counseling, McMacken said.

“Which is too bad,” McMacken said.

It gives doctors a chance to make certain mothers have healthy habits and are in good shape to handle a pregnancy.

Part of the problem is the lack of communication about these types of issues, Olson said. Women will often suffer through pain because no one talks about it and they think its normal and unchangeable.

“It’s changing the whole misconception that we have that some of these symptoms that women will have after they deliver, those aren’t uncommon and physical therapy can assist and help with that,” Olson said.

Women can have issues comparing their own pregnancies, Olson said.

“No two pregnancies are ever the same,” Olson said.

Many women go into their first pregnancy in better shape than their second, McMacken said.

“There are various aches and pains that you see more in subsequent pregnancies,” McMacken said.

Some women find exercise difficult after delivery, even after waiting the recommended six to eight weeks and getting the OK from their doctor, Olson said.

“You’re not going to be able to just jump right in to where you were nine months ago,” Olson said.

Even with exercise and guidance from medical professionals, any change takes time.

“Getting pregnant was a process, it’s going to take a while to get back to where you were before you got pregnant,” Olson said. “I think that’s hard because we’re in a society where we want those changes and we want them quickly.”

Before making any changes or decisions regarding physical activity and pregnancy, consult your doctor to see what’s right for you.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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