The Side Effects of Childbirth Doctors Don't Discuss

July 22nd 2016

Aimee Kuvadia

For many new mothers, labor-related pains persist well beyond the maternity ward. They're problems many OB-GYNs discount as standard side effects of pregnancy, even though, in many cases, they have the potential to be very serious.

An abundance of information is available to expectant mothers about the mental, emotional, and physical problems known to accompany pregnancy. But information is limited afterward for new mothers as a result of improperly trained OB-GYNs, Laura Beil reported in a new Cosmopolitan article, "Millions of Women Are Injured During Childbirth. Why Aren't Doctors Diagnosing Them?"

Scores of new mothers suffer problems after childbirth — such as incontinence (involuntarily leaking urine), debilitating pelvic pain, painful sex, and back aches — that interfere with daily activities, Beil reported. In worst-case scenarios, these problems have driven women to quit their jobs.

Some women blame themselves for their postpartum health issues, believing that if they had just done enough Kegels — exercises to strengthen the vagina — they wouldn't be suffering, Beil reported.

But the reality may be different. Childbirth injuries are quite common: Almost half of all women experience urinary incontinence after childbirth, and another 77 percent experience persistent back pain a year after delivering their baby, according to a 2015 PLoS One study. Yet doctors increasingly leave these conditions undiagnosed and untreated, Beil reported.

Doctors aren't necessarily to blame. Obstetric training is concentrated more on potentially fatal childbirth complications such as hemorrhages and less on issues such as pain, Sarah Fox, a Brown University researcher and professor and former president of the International Pelvic Pain Society, told Cosmopolitan.

Several of the postpartum health and quality-of-life issues — such as incontinence and painful sex — are sometimes considered taboo, which is why discussing them with physicians can prove difficult and potentially embarrassing, Beil reported. This explains why many new mothers would rather discuss their postpartum problems with their sisters or mothers instead of with medical professionals.

"If a woman has a problem like urinary incontinence or prolapse, they'll talk to their mom or their sisters, and their mom and sisters may have experienced a similar thing, and that may normalize it," Fox told Cosmopolitan.

Beil's Cosmopolitan story didn't address another, potentially fatal problem among new mothers: postpartum depression. It's believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including fatigue and hormonal changes or a psychological adjustment to motherhood. At least 14 percent of new mothers surveyed were likely to be depressed, according to a study by the nonprofit Childbirth Connection. Yet fewer than 63 percent of mothers said they were asked about depression at postpartum doctor visits.

Leah Millheiser, director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford University School of Medicine, offered Cosmopolitan a simple, empowering solution for mothers with postpartum health woes: Discuss them candidly with your doctor.

She provided this example of what to say:

"I had a baby. I'm breastfeeding. My vagina feels like the Sahara Desert. It is horribly painful to have sex, and my relationship is suffering. What can I do about it?"

It might be hard to do, but it beats suffering, right?

(H/t Cosmopolitan)