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Childbirth As An Extreme Sport — And Why Its Injuries Can Take So Long To Heal

A study finds some childbirth-related injuries are surprisingly like sports injuries. (popularpatty/Flickr)

A study finds some childbirth-related injuries are surprisingly like sports injuries. (popularpatty/Flickr)

Childbirth, as anyone who’s been through it knows, can feel very much like an extreme sport. And, it turns out, some childbirth-related injuries are surprisingly like sports injuries, including the very long time they need to heal.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study that tracked 68 pregnant women at risk for pelvic injuries and followed up using diagnostic imaging techniques more typically used in sports medicine.

The report by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan found that some women sustain long-lasting pelvic injuries after childbirth — and these aren’t the kinds of injuries that Kegel exercises alone can fix. (For the uninitiated, Kegels are pelvic floor strengthening exercises that involve squeezing and releasing certain muscles.) The research team also found that some childbirth-related injuries may take longer to heal, but ultimately do.

Janis Miller, an associate professor at Michigan’s School of Nursing, and the study’s lead author, says just like elite athletes, new mothers should acknowledge what their bodies have been through.

“If you’ve just run a marathon, it may take longer to heal than if you’ve just run a mile,” Miller said in an interview. “Some women’s birthing experiences are more strenuous than others, so one of the main points is to let women know their bodies will recover…but it can take a long time.”

And while many doctors give new moms the green light to resume normal activities — from sex to exercise — after the standard six-week postpartum exam, the reality is that it can take far longer to feel “normal” again. (I remember dragging my still-sore, depleted body in to that six week follow-up exam, and feeling I was decidedly not good to go.)

Indeed Miller calls the six-week marker for postpartum recovery “arbitrary.” “There is no rationale for that six-week time frame in terms of the body’s responses and healing,” she said.

The study, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, concludes that a clinical examination alone may not be able to detect the range of pelvic injuries from childbirth; and in certain women, specialized MRI scans may be warranted if there is “unexplained or prolonged pain after delivery,” or other complications, Miller says.

One surprising new finding was related to the types of injuries sustained by the women, who were all at higher risk for pelvic muscle tears because they had a long pushing phase during delivery or they were older women.

Miller said that the conventional wisdom at the start of the study was that postpartum pelvic injuries were primarily nerve-to-muscle or muscle-stretch related, but the researchers discovered that in this higher risk group of women, “one-quarter of them 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.” Continue reading