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“It literally felt like a zing of electricity shooting right through my crotch, and it could strike at any time,” says Willa Tremblay* about her experience with pelvic-area nerve pain during her first pregnancy. She came up with the term “vagina lightning” to describe it. Medically speaking, it’s a type of pelvic girdle pain, but in fact, “lightning crotch” is an accepted term for this somewhat common pregnancy ache.
The shooting electric pain in the pelvic area that many moms-to-be feel during the third trimester isn’t abnormal, says Jessica Dy, an obstetrician at the Ottawa Hospital. “We have a lot of nerves running through the muscles of our back, through our abs, and they all travel down toward the pubic bone, into the vagina and inner thigh area,” she says. “The weight of the baby can compress these nerves and then you get that zing of pain.” As D-day approaches and baby begins to descend into the birth canal, the pressure of the baby’s head on the cervix can also cause a jolt of discomfort.
So-called “lightning crotch” can happen at any time of the night or day, but it occurs most often when mom has been in one spot for a prolonged period of time—for example, after sleeping in one position and then getting up to go to the bathroom, or after sitting at a computer or in a car for several hours.
Most pregnant women say the twinge can really hurt. “It happened once as I was walking up the stairs in my house, and the pain was paralyzing,” says Tremblay. Luckily, in most cases, lightning pain is as brief as it is intense. But if baby settles on the back pelvic muscles and stays there for a long period of time, there’s a chance of compressing the sciatic nerve, which can trigger an even more intense and longer-lasting pain that can radiate down the backs of the legs. This discomfort, which is more common in expectant moms with pre-existing back issues, could last several minutes before subsiding, says Dy.
“Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to prevent it,” says Dy. In the case of chronic sciatic nerve pain, physiotherapy might reduce the frequency or severity by decreasing muscle tension, increasing flexibility and improving posture (that is, making your body stronger and more aligned, and therefore better able to hold the weight of the baby without resting too much on the sciatic nerve). Maternity compression stockings and belly belts can also help relieve some of the pressure on the pelvic area, potentially preventing some of those jolts. “But they’re not going to get rid of lightning pain,” Dy says. Your best bet is to just keep moving. If you spend the bulk of your day at a computer, for example, stand up and stretch every 15 minutes, she advises. The good news: Lightning pain isn’t typically cause for concern. Call your doctor if the feeling does not get better on its own, is affecting your mobility or is accompanied by uterine contractions, bleeding or a noticeable decrease in fetal movement. Otherwise, you can just chalk it up to another annoying pregnancy symptom. After baby is born, lightning pain will be gone—in a flash.
Other causes of crotch pain Lightning pain is just one type of discomfort you might experience down there during the third trimester. There are a couple of other pelvic pains to be aware of. The first, round ligament pain, is described as more of a pulling sensation rather than a jolt, and it typically starts during the second trimester. The round ligament that supports the uterus is required to stretch a lot to accommodate a growing baby. Movements like coughing, standing up or even laughing, which cause the already stretched ligament to contract quickly, can be painful. If you experience round ligament pain, change positions slowly and frequently. When you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, bend and flex your hips to reduce some of the pull on the ligaments. And ask your practitioner about stretches you can do at home to ease the aches.
Another type of pain is the result of varicose veins. Your risk for developing varicose veins around the vulva increases during pregnancy because of the increase in blood volume and the slowing of blood flow from the lower body, which pushes on nearby veins. Moderate to severe cases can be accompanied by vulvar swelling and a feeling of pressure or pain. If you think you have varicose veins around the vulva (a healthcare provider could tell you for sure), avoid standing for long periods, change positions often, elevate your hips when lying down to promote circulation and wear maternity compression pantyhose to support the area.
*Name has been changed.