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Why Can’t Women Have Painkillers In Pregnancy?

May 20, 2024

Only the other day, I heard a pregnant woman lament because she was experiencing ligament pain, and sadly, she had to bear it because she was told she couldn’t have any painkillers in pregnancy.

Now, just how true is this?

Pain from different causes is a common occurrence and its important to know if you can have painkillers in pregnancy. Black woman in pink shirt with abdominal pain being supported by her partner.

There could be many reasons for this – it depends on the painkiller -its risk of harming the baby and the woman – any allergies, as well as other drugs she may be taking at the same time.

But what about reasonably straightforward OTC painkillers for simple, non-urgent abdominal pain in pregnancy? For instance, paracetamol (acetaminophen) or Ibuprofen?

You might hear a lot of conflicting views.

In this post, let’s look at whether painkillers in pregnancy are appropriate and what is safe or not.

But first, what conditions are most likely to cause ‘tummy’ pain when you are pregnant?

Causes of Abdominal Pain in Pregnancy

Experiencing tummy (abdominal, pelvic or stomach) pain in pregnancy is common.

Many times, it’s nothing to worry about.

Sometimes, though, there are serious causes that need checking out.

It is probably harmless if the pain is mild and goes away when you rest or change position.

It’s also likely to be harmless if it goes away after you open your bowels or break wind.

The pain could be dull or sharp, and the most common examples are:

  • A growing womb can lead to ligament pains (also known as “growing pains” because the ligaments stretch to support your growing bump) – they can feel like a sharp cramp on one side of your lower tummy.
    • An example is the round ligament pain. The round ligaments are tissues on either side of the womb that hold it to the pelvis. When your womb grows and stretches – usually from the second trimester, you may get spasms of the round ligament on either side. They will likely happen if you change position too quickly or sneeze, cough or laugh. You can often ease the pain, and we will discuss ways of managing non-severe pain in pregnancy shortly. Other causes are linked to the effect of your pregnancy hormones, like progesterone, which supports your pregnancy in the stomach and bowels. These include conditions like:
  • Constipation
  • Trapped wind 
  • Acid reflux  
  • SPD (Symphisis pubis dysfunction) is another form of ligament and joint pain. It refers to pain and other symptoms you can get when the joint between the left and right pelvic bones becomes a little unstable.
    • Usually, these bones and joints are held in place by ligaments so that the bones can’t shift or move around excessively. In some situations, like during pregnancy, due to hormonal changes, these ligaments loosen so that the joint becomes flexible enough for your pelvic bones to widen during delivery. But this additional laxity and movement in your pelvis can be painful.  It could mean your pelvic area hurts during pregnancy, labour or after having the baby. The pain may come from the front of your pelvis, the back or both the front and back. Your pelvis may even feel loose and wobbly.
  • Braxton-Hicks contractions are mild, irregular contractions that help prepare your woman/body for the main event. They are sometimes called false labour and can be uncomfortable but usually are not severe.

 These causes are usually not a cause for concern, but you may need some painkillers to manage these conditions.

If you experience severe pain, not getting better with rest, or associated with other symptoms like fever, feeling unwell, dizzy, experiencing vaginal bleeding, you should seek urgent medical attention as they may indicate more severe causes like:

These can pose a risk to the pregnant person and the baby and may require immediate medical attention.

Painkillers Safe In Pregnancy?

Ok, so we are dealing with non-severe tummy or abdominal or pelvic pain in pregnancy. What can you do to make yourself feel comfortable?

What has been your experience of having mild pain when pregnant from some of these causes we talked about – did you have any medicines, or what did you try as an alternative? 

Here is current thinking when it relates to treating pain in pregnancy:

It’s old thinking to normalise the experience of pain when pregnant, especially now we understand our bodies a lot better.

Experiencing stress from the pain is also a negative experience, and women should not have to suffer needlessly because they are having babies. 

Next, taking certain types of pain relief during pregnancy under a doctor’s supervision and guidance is safe.

The most important thing is to be sure of the nature of the drug so it does not harm the baby or mum, to be aware of how much is necessary and for how long you can use it.

For most of us, we would rather not take any medication while pregnant because – yes – staying without is better.

But what if you need to have something for some of those conditions, like excess gastric acid or SPD? 

What Options for Pain Relief Are There?

Common non-medication options for ligament conditions are:

  • Change your position slowly so you don’t rush. 
  • If you are about to cough or sneeze, lean forward and support under your bump with your hands.
  • Rest on your side with a pillow between your knees. Sleep on both sides is generally fine, but the left is ideal to help improve blood flow around the body. 
  • A warm bath, hot water bottle, pad, or cushion can help ease the pain. 
  • Try antenatal yoga or learn gentle stretching movements that will help boost the circulation and flow of endorphins around the body, which are also natural painkillers.

For bowel problems, you can have specific medicines (again under the care of your doctor to treat them).

For excess gastric acid, avoiding processed food and late eating may help.

Still, some antacids or acid suppressants can be prescribed safely by your doctor.

Constipation – water, fibre from fruit and veg; gentle laxatives can be prescribed by your doctor.

A Safe Common Painkiller in Pregnancy

So, can pregnant women have painkillers? Yes, when necessary, but we advise you to do so under the supervision of your medical provider, who will check if it is suitable for you and your baby.

What over-the-counter pain meds are ok if you have mild, non-urgent pain in pregnancy like we’ve talked about?

Ibuprofen: We generally advise women to AVOID Ibuprofen when they are pregnant. It can be associated with harm to the developing baby, so please don’t use it.

What about Paracetamol (Acetaminophen)?

Paracetamol is safe to take during pregnancy – again, under the care and supervision of your doctor.

Studies on paracetamol, when taken at the appropriate dose and for short periods, have not shown any harmful effects on the baby.

It is a mild painkiller but can be effective for some of these non-urgent conditions we mentioned in addition to other non-medication options.

So whether simple medicines like paracetamol or non-drug options, pregnant women should not endure needless discomfort especially when we know what is causing it.

There are stronger painkillers in pregnancy which are often based on opiates, but their use will be limited.

As long as you have no allergies and depending on the stage of your pregnancy, your doctor can advice if these stronger options are suitable and how much you can take..

More Reading

Editing by AskAwayHealth Team


All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising  Medical Practitioners on a wide range of healthcare conditions to provide evidence-based guidance and to help promote quality healthcare. 

The advice in our material is not meant to replace the management of your specific condition by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
To discuss your condition, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a health practitioner or reach us directly.

Image Credits: Canva

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