Is It Back Pain or Back Labor? How to Tell the Difference

pregnant woman back pain

Pregnant women often experience lower back pain for obvious reasons: the extra load they're carrying upfront! Yet as your due date draws near, an achy back can also mean something else: you're in labor. That's right -- even though you were probably expecting to feel the first tremors of labor in your belly or pelvis, one in four women will instead experience pain in their backs, called "back labor." Only since this sensation can feel so similar to plain old pregnancy-induced back pain, many of these women don't even realize they're in labor at all!

"During early labor, it's often tough to determine if it's back pain or labor contractions," says Deena Blumenfeld, a childbirth educator in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and founder of Shining Light Prenatal. But there is a way to tell one from the other, and here's how:

  1. Time it. Pregnancy back pain is a constant, unwavering ache. Back labor, by contrast, will come and go at regular intervals. "Most women will start noticing a pattern once the back pain comes at 15- or 20-minute intervals," says Blumenfeld. "That's back labor."
  2. Consider what you were doing before the pain appeared. Certain things can bring on pregnancy-related back pain -- for instance, you slept in the wrong position and wake up feeling stiff. Or the back pain ensues after you were on your feet (or sitting) for many hours that day. Back labor, by contrast, seems to occur of the blue for no logical reason. In that case, the "reason" could very well be that your baby is ready to get out!
  3. See if you can alleviate the ache. Pregnancy-related back pain can be alleviated -- by massaging the achy area with a tennis ball (have your husband do it or do it yourself by leaning against the wall) or by stretching your lower back (which can be done by leaning against the wall and tucking your tailbone in toward your belly button for 30 seconds). Only if you're experiencing back labor, nothing you do will make the pain go away... other than giving birth, of course! 

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Even if you think you're experiencing back labor -- or any labor signs, really -- that doesn't necessarily mean you should rush to the hospital. 

"You'll want to make sure your contractions are consistent and close enough before you go in," says Blumenfeld. A good rule of thumb is 3-1-1, which means your contractions are three minutes apart, lasting for one minute, for one hour. That's also assuming your hospital is a half-hour or shorter drive away; if you live farther away, you'll want to give yourself more time.

Did you experience back pain during pregnancy, and how did you alleviate it?


Image via Martin Novak/shutterstock

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