Depending on your perspective, having a baby might be a beautiful, blissful life experience or the scariest phenomenon imaginable (or both). Either way, one thing holds true: Pregnancy is a serious medical undertaking.
Although gestation and childbirth are often written off as NBD — just some wacky hormonal changes accompanied by a big swollen belly! — pregnancy can be intensely physically strenuous and pose major injury risks. According to one recent study, women who give birth might as well be competitive athletes.
The study: According to researchers at the University of Michigan, childbirth might not actually be so different from, say, running a marathon, in terms of how it can affect a new mother's body.
Relying on MRI techniques commonly used to diagnose sports injuries, the researchers found that after labor and delivery, a significant proportion of women experienced musculoskeletal damage similar to the damage caused by hardcore athletic activity.
While 29% of women included in the study experienced subcortical fractures that the researchers compared to stress fractures that athletes get, over two-thirds had excess fluid in their pelvises, a sign of pelvic muscle strain. Another 41% had muscle tearing, meaning their muscles detached partially or fully from their pubic bones. Such injuries can't be healed with Kegel exercises, which are commonly recommended for postpartum issues.
If those injuries sound painful and dangerous, that's because they are — but according to the study's lead researcher, associate nursing professor Janis Miller, doctors often don't identify them.
"If an athlete sustained a similar injury in the field, she'd be in an MRI machine in an instant," Miller said in a press release. "We have this thing where we tell women, 'Well, you're six weeks postpartum and now we don't need to see you — you'll be fine.' But not all women feel fine after six weeks nor are ready to go back to work, and they aren't crazy."
The pain of sugarcoating pregnancy: Although the women included in Miller's study were at high risk for muscle strain or tearing, the fact that they sustained such serious injuries that weren't properly addressed underscores a problem with the way we talk about pregnancy and childbirth: A baby isn't the only consequence of giving birth.
The physical toll of growing a human being for nearly a year is huge, and at the most extreme can put women's lives at risk. That's just one reason why women should probably get to decide for themselves when and whether they want to be pregnant.
But when everyone from magazines to politicians treats pregnancy like an easy, one-size-fits-all experience, it doesn't leave much understanding for women who eschew pregnancy for these reasons or simply want to talk openly about the unexpected, often unpleasant parts of having a baby.
According to Miller, who recounted one particularly devastating conversation with a study participant, it also leads many women to blame themselves for their pregnancy pain. "I walked into my office, and before she even said, 'Hi,' the woman told me, 'I know it's all my fault because I didn't do enough Kegel exercises,'" Miller said, according to Michigan News.
That said, social media and vocal celebrities have helped push the cultural needle toward more open conversations about pregnancy and childbirth. "I'm gonna keep it real: For me, pregnancy is the worst experience of my life! LOL!" wrote none other than Kim Kardashian West.
Miller and her team said they hope the study will help by illustrating the very real risks that come with giving birth and lead doctors to more seriously evaluate women's postpartum issues — without making moms feel like they're losing their minds. With so much of pregnancy shrouded in mystery, the findings could also send an important message to all women. Because even if everything turns out OK, pregnancy can still be a huge pain.