Short on time? Then the key things to know are:
- Numb hands during pregnancy are very common and are usually due to carpal tunnel syndrome
- Numbness or tingling in the hands can continue for some time after birth and can be due to continued swelling or tendonitis from picking the baby up all day - consider wearing a hand splint at night to help this
- It is normal to feel numbness on either side of a caesarean section scar - this is because the nerve endings have been cut and should reduce over time
- The sciatica nerve that runs from your lower back down to your feet can be compressed during pregnancy and can cause pain or numbness in the bottom, back of your legs and/or in your feet
- Most postpartum nerve damage is temporary and should start to resolve after a short period of time
- Any prolonged nerve damage lasting more than a couple of months with little or no improvement should be seen too - it is incredibly rare for nerves to actually be severed and in these unusual circumstances surgery may be required
Many women experience numbness or tingling during their pregnancy. From an increase in fluid to compressed nerves, there’s many causes for this common symptom.
Here we share what’s normal and what can help with numbness and nerve damage during pregnancy and after birth.
Numbness in hands and feet during pregnancy
Your blood volume increases by approximately one third during pregnancy. This extra circulating fluid has a lot to answer for - swelling in the hands and feet, extra facial swelling and in this particular case, numbness.
During the third trimester (28 weeks onwards) this extra fluid in your system can start to put pressure on the wrists and ankles, which causes the nerves to be compressed and therefore causes tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, particularly if you have been sitting still or lying down for some time.
What is Carpal Tunnel syndrome?
Many women suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy, which is the clinical term for such numbness and tingling, or pins and needles in the hands. Unfortunately there isn’t any treatment as such for this syndrome during pregnancy, but sometimes hand splints might give some relief. They hold the joint in a neutral position and therefore are beneficial to wear at night when your hand is more likely to bend.
There are also some simple exercises you can do to help relieve the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome:
- Wrist rotations: rotate your wrists by moving only your hands, up and down, and then left and right
- Finger stretch: stretch your fingers wide, hold for four seconds and then release them- repeat this 4 times
- Thumb stretch: using your opposite hand, push your thumb backwards until you feel a gentle stretch, repeat on each hand
- In an all fours position, slowly and gently walk the hands around until your fingers are facing towards your knees, then slowly walk the hand back around - repeat this four times
Tingling and numbness in the hands and feet tends to disappear as soon as the baby is born and all the extra fluid dissipates. However if after a couple of months postpartum you are still experiencing these symptoms, make sure to seek advice from your GP.
Postpartum numbness in hands and feet
Up to 1 in 100 women experience minor nerve damage after giving birth. This is normally impacts one single nerve causing a numb area to the skin or muscle. It most commonly occurs in legs and is a temporary side effect of labour.
It is unusual for any numbness or tingling to persist in the feet in the postpartum period. You should seek medical advice if it doesn't resolve within a few weeks.
Some women find that pain and tingling in their hands persists post delivery, but this is often due to regularly picking their baby up (who ideally is getting heavier by the day!). Increased stress on your median nerve can cause carpal tunnel, resulting in pins and needles, numbness and discomfort. This can lead onto tendonitis in the wrists so it is definitely worth trying some hand splints or seeking further medical advice if this occurs.
Numbness in the stomach
Your abdomen grows causing the skin to stretch and get thinner during pregnancy. As this happens, the skin can at times become numb, or you might experience patches of numbness.
As the skin on your stomach becomes stretched, the nerve endings become compressed. And this compression may cause you to experience numb patches.
The abdomen can sometimes also become slightly itchy where the skin is over stretched. This is not irreversible damage and as soon as the baby is born, the nerves will become less compressed and start to fire up again.
One way that you can help to reduce the impact of numbness and itchiness during pregnancy is to simply apply a topical oil or cream of your choice. Rubbing oil or cream over your abdomen when you are pregnant is also a delightful way to bond with your baby and you may find that the more you continue this practice, the more the baby responds with little kicks.
This abdominal massage can also help encourage circulation to the overstretched parts of your tummy and can be useful post delivery to stimulate the nerve endings to start working again.
Sciatica during pregnancy
The sciatica nerve runs from your lower back down to your feet. During pregnancy it is possible that the weight of the uterus can compress this nerve and cause some discomfort.
If this is the case, you may feel pain, pins and needles or numbness in your bottom, back of your legs or in your feet. This can be an issue up until the baby is born or until the baby shifts position slightly so that the uterus is no longer putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Simple remedies to help sciatica pain are light exercise like walking, swimming or pregnancy yoga, or sleeping with a pillow between your knees. Simple analgesia like paracetamol or ibuprofen has not been found to be particularly useful in relieving sciatic nerve pain.
Numbness or nerve damage after a Caesarean section
Immediately following a caesarean section delivery, your tummy will feel numb above and below your scar. This is because the nerve endings have been cut during the surgery. This will resolve over time but may take up to a few weeks or even months.
Continue with the abdominal massage in order to stimulate blood flow to the nerves under the skin to help resolve any nerve damage. It can also help to keep active with light exercise. Walking can help to encourage blood flow back into the damaged nerve endings, so as soon as you feel able, get moving!
Prolonged nerve damage after childbirth
It is incredibly rare to suffer from any prolonged nerve damage due to giving birth. The risk of nerve damage from having spinal/epidural anaesthesia is also very rare.
It is possible to sustain minor nerve damage after such procedures, but any damage usually involves a single nerve that may cause numbness or a tingly sensation on and around the skin and will resolve in a few days.
There is very little evidence to suggest that giving birth, or any birth procedures such as caesarean sections or forceps deliveries under spinal anaesthesia cause any prolonged nerve damage. Any prolonged symptoms of numbness or muscle weakness should be addressed, but they are not usually directly caused by the pregnancy or the birth.
Want to speak to someone about numbness and nerve damage? Speak to a midwife online at a time that suits you to get specialist advice with any concerns.
Kate, Naytal Midwife
Kate has been a Midwife within the NHS for more than 15 years and supports women to work harmoniously with their bodies and tune into their intuitions.