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Pregnancy, pelvic girdle and low back pain

 pregnant women


During pregnancy the female body undergoes several changes.  Some of these effects include the release of a hormone called 'relaxin' which as the name implies causes relaxation of soft tissue such as ligaments in preparation for childbirth.  Such changes are in most circumstances beneficial.  However, in some instances women can develop low back and pelvic girdle pain.

Pelvic anatomy

The pelvic girdle is supported by ligaments and muscles.  Additionally, the low back also has an intervertebral discs which act as semi-flexible spacing structures for the back. These structures undergo increased loading as a result of increasing weight of the expectant mother, as well as altered posture as the foetus grows.  The pelvic girdle tends to tilt forward placing extra strain on the low back curvature.  Moreover, the pelvic ligaments holding the sacrum to the ilium and binding the pubic bones at the front can be strained resulting in the ilium shifting on the sacrum which can cause significant pain.  Women can experience difficulty in bearing weight through one leg.  Such pain can be associated with altered muscle tension as well as weakness creating inco-ordination around the hip-pelvis-back regions (Wu et al., Eur Spine J. 2008 September; 17(9): 1160–1169).


Physiotherapy addresses such problems by undertaking a comprehensive assessment to ascertain the mechanisms of pain ane movement impairment.  The articular structures of the back, pelvis and hip are assessed for their ability to rotate and glide.  The muscles are assessed to evaluate whether they are excessively tight due to spasms or excessively weak due to reflexogenic pain mechanisms.  Muscles of most importance are the pelvic floor, the deep low abdominal muscles, the deep hip flexors and the hip rotators.  Additionally, the back extensors and side benders are also assessed for their postural reflex integrity.  The knees and feet are also assessed for their alignment and occasionally orthotics are prescribed.

Hip Problems

Due to the altered lumbo-pelvic position from pregnancy, the hip may become compromised. Some hip muscles such as the obturator internus has it's membrane connecting to the pelvic floor muscles. Other muscles of the hip, such as the piriformis, actually attach to the front of the sacrum and and can create a torsion in it. Frequently, a torsion in the sacrum can also occur as a result of the inside thigh muscle (adductor) pulling the hip forward in it's socket which results in the ilium (wing of the pelvis) rotating forward causing a rotation of the sacrum (triangular bone) to the opposite side which results in the pelvis rotating excessively to the same side. posterior hip muscles Since the thigh bone (femur) is a hip and knee bone, some of our knee exercises are also hip exercises, activating the adductors, gluteals, quadriceps and pelvic floor.  


Treatment usually involves a Canadian approach, using muscle energy techniques, soft tissue massage, joint mobilisation as well as exercises for low back-pelvic synergy and postural stability. Frequently, the thorax is quite stiff, as a result of stretched abdominal muscles and tight erector spinae back muscles, and may need soft tissue work and joint mobilisation as well as breathing exercises. In pregnant women suffering pelvic girdle pain, investigations have shown increased horizontal rotation during walking, which seems counter-intuitive to move an area excessively when painful (Wu et al., Eur Spine J. 2008 September; 17(9): 1160–1169). Since the pelvis and spine can be consider as sitting in a sling of muscles, once sacro-iliac (pelvic joint) positioning is attained, it should be maintained through a home exercise programme employing 'muscle energy straps' and joint unloading strategies. Sometimes, a pelvic belt is used to maintain stability.

Breathing exercises

Exercise during pregnancy

Investigations into prenatal maternal physical activity and stem cells in umbillical cord blood have demonstrated changes which may be beneficial in the amelioration of preecclampsia, as well as findings of reduced breast stem cells, which may suggest susceptibility to breast cancer can be influenced prenatally. Moreover, endothelial progenitor cells in umbillical cord suggest that maternal exercise can improve fetal cardiovascular fitness (Onoyama S et al 2015, Med Sc Sp Ex, 48,1, 82-89)

Diabetes and Pregnancy

Recent investigations have shown that exercise during pregnancy can reduce the risk of offspring developing type 2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity and glucose homeostasis (Carter et al 2013, Med Sc Sp Ex, 45, 5, 832-840). Lateral breathing, along with thoracic mobility exercises and venous stockings may aid in leg circulation and sympathetic nervous system modulation. As the foetus becomes larger, lying on the back should be avoided as it may reduce blood flow in the aorta and vena cava.

- only works if your not too pregnant yet!! Modifications may be made using a towel or using the sidelying position.

Sidelying also reduces the risk of compromising the aorta and vena cava

Gluteal muscles

Although Kegel exercises have been used extensively, some clinicians suggest that these may increase counternutation in the pelvis resulting in instability around the pelvic joints. Alternatively, the use of exercises encouraging gluteal muscle activation has been encouraged to maintain a more upright and hence stable pelvis. Other hip muscles of significance include the obturator internus which is an external rotator of the hip and has myofascia which is continuous with the pelvic floor musculature. It should be noted that excessive external rotator activity by the piriformis muscle may result in SIJ (pelvic joint) irritation from potential 'out flare' of the ilium and/or contralateral rotation of the sacrum resulting in ipsilateral opening of the SIJ and contralateral compression of the opposite SIJ.

Hip and core stability exercises


Exercises in 4 point kneeling can also be employed to improve the position of the hip in the pelvic socket, as well as activate the pelvic - thoracic slings. Care needs to be taken of excessive loading of the hands, as carpal tunnel is not uncommon during pregnancy. All exercises can be modified into the standing and side lying positions. Common exercises include the clam, hip exercises and the wall plank



Exercises involving hip-back strength and co-ordination are frequently employed to maintain the optimal functioning of the legs and back. Hands-on techniques around the hip, pelvis, low back and thorax are employed to optimise muscle tension and joint alignment, which in turn reduce excessive uncontrolled movement and the muscle inhibitory effects of pain.


Please consult us or your local physiotherapist as the treatment regime should be tailor made for your precise condition.

Last update : 2 Feb 2016


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  • Thu 22 Dec 2016

    Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

    Is your child suffering Ehlers Danlos Syndrome? Hypermobile joints, frequent bruising, recurrent sprains and pains? Although a difficult manifestation to treat, physiotherapy can help. Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) When joint hypermobility coexists with arthralgias in >4 joints or other signs of connective tissue disorder (CTD), it is termed Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS). This includes conditions such as Marfan's Syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Osteogenesis imperfecta. These people are thought to have a higher proportion of type III to type I collagen, where type I collagen exhibits highly organised fibres resulting in high tensile strength, whereas type III collagen fibres are much more extensible, disorganised and occurring primarily in organs such as the gut, skin and blood vessels. The predominant presenting complaint is widespread pain lasting from a day to decades. Additional symptoms associated with joints, such as stiffness, 'feeling like a 90 year old', clicking, clunking, popping, subluxations, dislocations, instability, feeling that the joints are vulnerable, as well as symptoms affecting other tissue such as paraesthesia, tiredness, faintness, feeling unwell and suffering flu-like symptoms. Autonomic nervous system dysfunction in the form of 'dysautonomia' frequently occur. Broad paper like scars appear in the skin where wounds have healed. Other extra-articular manifestations include ocular ptosis, varicose veins, Raynauds phenomenon, neuropathies, tarsal and carpal tunnel syndrome, alterations in neuromuscular reflex action, development motor co-ordination delay (DCD), fibromyalgia, low bone density, anxiety and panic states and depression. Age, sex and gender play a role in presentaton as it appears more common in African and Asian females with a prevalence rate of between 5% and 25% . Despite this relatively high prevalence, JHS continues to be under-recognised, poorly understood and inadequately managed (Simmonds & Kerr, Manual Therapy, 2007, 12, 298-309). In my clinical experience, these people tend to move fast, rely on inertia for stability, have long muscles creating large degrees of freedom and potential kinetic energy, resembling ballistic 'floppies', and are either highly co-ordinated or clumsy. Stabilisation strategies consist of fast movements using large muscle groups. They tend to activities such as swimming, yoga, gymnastics, sprinting, strikers at soccer. Treatment has consisted of soft tissue techniques similar to those used in fibromyalgia, including but not limited to, dry needling, myofascial release and trigger point massage, kinesiotape, strapping for stability in sporting endeavours, pressure garment use such as SKINS, BSc, 2XU, venous stockings. Effectiveness of massage has been shown to be usefull in people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (Njjs et al 2006, Man Ther, 11, 187-91), a condition displaying several clinical similarities to people suffering from EDS-HT. Specific exercise regimes more attuned to co-ordination and stability (proprioception) than to excessive non-stabilising stretching. A multi-modal approach including muscle energy techniques, dry needling, mobilisations with movement (Mulligans), thoracic ring relocations (especially good with autonomic symptoms), hydrotherapy, herbal supplementaion such as Devils Claw, Cats Claw, Curcumin and Green Tee can all be useful in the management of this condition. Additionally, Arnica cream can also be used for bruising. Encouragment of non-weight bearing endurance activities such as swimming, and cycling to stimulate the endurance red muscle fibres over the ballistic white muscles fibres, since the latter are preferably used in this movement population. End of range movements are either avoided or done with care where stability is emphasized over mobility. People frequently complain of subluxation and dislocating knee caps and shoulders whilst undertaking a spectrum of activities from sleeping to sporting endeavours. A good friend of mine, Brazilian Physiotherapist and Researcher, Dr Abrahao Baptista, has used muscle electrical stimulation on knees and shoulders to retrain the brain to enhance muscular cortical representation which reduce the incidence of subluxations and dislocations. Abrahao wrote : "my daughter has a mild EDS III and used to dislocate her shoulder many times during sleeping.  I tried many alternatives with her, including strenghtening exercises and education to prevent bad postures before sleeping (e.g. positioning her arm over her head).  What we found to really help her was electrostimulation of the supraspinatus and posterior deltoid.  I followed the ideas of some works from Michael Ridding and others (Clinical Neurophysiology, 112, 1461-1469, 2001; Exp Brain Research, 143, 342-349 ,2002), which show that 30Hz electrostim, provoking mild muscle contractions for 45' leads to increased excitability of the muscle representation in the brain (at the primary motor cortex).  Stimulation of the supraspinatus and deltoid is an old technique to hemiplegic painful shoulder, but used with a little different parameters.  Previous studies showed that this type of stimulation increases brain excitability for 3 days, and so we used two times a week, for two weeks.  After that, her discolcations improved a lot.  It is important to note that, during stimulation, you have to clearly see the humerus head going up to the glenoid fossa" Surgery : The effect of surgical intervention has been shown to be favourable in only a limited percentage of patients (33.9% Rombaut et al 2011, Arch Phys Med Rehab, 92, 1106-1112). Three basic problems arise. First, tissues are less robust; Second, blood vessel fragility can cause technical problems in wound closure; Third, healing is often delayed and may remain incomplete.  Voluntary Posterior Shoulder Subluxation : Clinical Presentation A 27 year old male presented with a history of posterior shoulder weakness, characterised by severe fatigue and heaviness when 'working out' at the gym. His usual routine was one which involved sets of 15 repetitions, hence endurance oriented rather than power oriented. He described major problems when trying to execute bench presses and Japanese style push ups. In a comprehensive review of 300 articles on shoulder instability, Heller et al. (Heller, K. D., J. Forst, R. Forst, and B. Cohen. Posterior dislocation of the shoulder: recommendations for a classification. Arch. Orthop. Trauma Surg. 113:228-231, 1994) concluded that posterior dislocation constitutes only 2.1% of all shoulder dislocations. The differential diagnosis in patients with posterior instability of the shoulder includes traumatic posterior instability, atraumatic posterior instability, voluntary posterior instability, and posterior instability associated with multidirectional instability. Laxity testing was performed with a posterior draw sign. The laxity was graded with a modified Hawkins scale : grade I, humeral head displacement that locks out beyond the glenoid rim; grade II, humeral displacement that is over the glenoid rim but is easily reducable; and grade III, humeral head displacement that locks out beyond the glenoid rim. This client had grade III laxity in both shoulders. A sulcus sign test was performed on both shoulders and graded to commonly accepted grading scales: grade I, a depression <1cm: grade 2, between 1.5 and 2cm; and grade 3, a depression > 2cm. The client had a grade 3 sulcus sign bilaterally regardless if the arm was in neutral or external rotation. The client met the criteria of Carter and Wilkinson for generalized liagmentous laxity by exhibiting hyperextension of both elbows > 10o, genu recurvatum of both knees > 19o, and the ability to touch his thumbto his forearm Headaches Jacome (1999, Cephalagia, 19, 791-796) reported that migraine headaches occured in 11/18 patients with EDS. Hakim et al (2004, Rheumatology, 43, 1194-1195) found 40% of 170 patients with EDS-HT/JHS had previously been diagnosed with migraine compared with 20% of the control population. in addition, the frequency of migraine attacks was 1.7 times increased and the headache related disability was 3.0 times greater in migraineurs with EDS-HT/JHS as compared to controls with migraine (Bendick et al 2011, Cephalgia, 31, 603-613). People suffering from soft tissue hypermobility, connective tissue disorder, Marfans Syndrome, and Ehler Danlos syndrome may be predisposed to upper cervical spine instability. Dural laxity, vascular irregularities and ligamentous laxity with or without Arnold Chiari Malformations may be accompanied by symptoms of intracranial hypotension, POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome), dysautonomia, suboccipital "Coat Hanger" headaches (Martin & Neilson 2014 Headaches, September, 1403-1411). Scoliosis and spondylolisthesis occurs in 63% and 6-15% of patients with Marfans syndrome repsectively (Sponseller et al 1995, JBJS Am, 77, 867-876). These manifestations need to be borne in mind as not all upper cervical spine instabilities are the result of trauma. Clinically, serious neurological complications can arise in the presence of upper cervical spine instability, including a stroke or even death. Additionally, vertebral artery and even carotid artery dissections have been reported during and after chiropractic manipulation. Added caution may be needed after Whiplash type injuries. The clinician needs to be aware of this possibility in the presence of these symptoms, assess upper cervical joint hypermobility with manual therapy techniques and treat appropriately, including exercises to improve the control of musculature around the cervical and thoracic spine. Atlantoaxial instability can be diagnosed by flexion/extension X-rays or MRI's, but is best evaluated by using rotational 3D CT scanning. Surgical intervention is sometimes necessary. Temperomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders The prevelence of TMJ disorders have been reported to be as high as 80% in people with JHD (Kavucu et al 2006, Rheum Int., 26, 257-260). Joint clicking of the TMJ was 1.7 times more likely in JHD than in controls (Hirsch et al 2008, Eur J Oral Sci, 116, 525-539). Headaches associated with TMJ disorders tend to be in the temporal/masseter (side of head) region. TMJ issues increase in prevelence in the presence of both migraine and chronic daily headache (Goncalves et al 2011, Clin J Pain, 27, 611-615). I've treated a colleague who spontaneously dislocated her jaw whilst yawning at work one morning. stressful for me and her! Generally, people with JHD have increased jaw opening (>40mm from upper to lower incisors). Updated 18 May 2017  Read More
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    Pilates – with Brunna Cardoso

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Updated : 10 May 2014

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Copyright Martin Krause 1999 - material is presented as a free educational resource however all intellectual property rights should be acknowledged and respected