So many physiological changes occur to a woman’s body during pregnancy, it is no wonder that pregnant women have back and lower extremity aches and pains. These women experience hormonal changes, weight gain, reduced abdominal strength, and their center of mass shifts anteriorly. These physiological changes result in altered spinal and pelvic alignment, and increased joint laxity. Also, many women report increases in size of their feet and a tendency to have flatter arches during and after pregnancy. Alignment changes may influence pain. Altered alignment could change the physical stresses placed upon different tissues of the body, which that specific tissue was not adapted to, therefore, causing pain or injury to that tissue.
A recent study published in 2016, in the Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy1, investigated if there may be a relationship between anthropometric changes of the foot that occur with pregnancy, and pregnancy related musculoskeletal pain of the lower extremity. The study included 15 primigravid women and 14 weight matched controls. This study was a repeated-measurements design study, where the investigators measured foot length, foot width, arch height index, arch rigidity index (ARI), arch drop (AD), rear foot angle, and pelvic obliquity during the second and third trimesters and post-partum. The subjects were surveyed on pain in the low back, hips/buttocks, and foot/ankle.
The author’s findings were that measures of arch flexibility (ARI and AD) correlated with pain at the low back and the foot and ankle. They concluded that medial longitudinal arch flexibility may be related to pain in the low back and foot. The more flexible arches were associated with more pain in the study participants. They reported the participants in their study did not have very high pain levels in general, and recommend further studies to compare pregnant women who experience severe pain with women who do not while comparing their alignment factors. This article is a good reminder for physical therapists to consider the changes that occur to the foot including changes in arch height, arch flexibility, and foot size and how that influences the pelvis and lower extremity for prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal pain during pregnancy.
Educating our pregnant patients on shoe wear seems even more important now. Making recommendations, unique to each individual patient based on their objective data, foot type, and arch flexibility status seems like an appropriate addition to a well-rounded treatment plan. Doesn’t it seem prudent to wear shoes that provide some arch support to hopefully reduce musculoskeletal pain associated with pregnancy changes? I have observed some patients who are pregnant arrive to physical therapy wearing unsupportive flip flops and other poor shoe wear choices. I understand there are barriers for pregnant patients, I remember from when I was pregnant that reaching your feet to put shoes on can be very difficult, and sometimes your feet are swelling so it may be near impossible to physically get shoes on your feet. You might even need a new pair of shoes, as your shoes may no longer fit. However, an article such as this one, seems like something I could easily share with a patient to help persuade them of the importance of good shoe wear or at least proper arch support. Being able to discuss a recent scientific study with a patient can be powerful and motivating to a patient. Additionally, an article such as this reminds a practitioner of specific objective data to monitor such as arch height and flexibility as it changes throughout the patient’s pregnancy. How does the patient’s changing arch height and flexibility influence their specific pelvic, hip, knee, and ankle alignment? How does swelling play a part in the patients’ foot anthropometrics day to day, trimester to trimester? Ask more questions about their daily activities, are they ‘barefoot and pregnant’? Could something as simple as having them wear appropriate, arch supportive shoes while in the home reduce their lower extremity or back pain?"
Harrison, K. D., Mancinelli, C., Thomas, K., Meszaros, P., & McCrory, J. L. (2016). The Relationship Between Lower Extremity Alignment and Low Back, Hip, and Foot Pain During Pregnancy: A Longitudinal Study of Primigravid Women Versus Nulliparous Controls. Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy, 40(3), 139-146.