When we are pregnant, a new lexicon of words and information suddenly materializes before us; things like colostrum, Apgar scores and effacement, which had very little meaning beforehand, become crucial to know. But what about postpartum pain and other labor complications? Though many of us diligently attend labor and delivery, child care and breastfeeding courses, we may hear little about childbirth complications that can cause serious injury to mothers. A Pro Publica investigation revealed that of the nearly four million American women who give birth every year, more than 50,000 of them suffer “dangerous and even life-threatening complications that often leave them wounded, weakened, traumatized, financially devastated, unable to bear more children or searching in vain for answers about what went wrong.” My friend Jaime was one of those women.
“The pain was unbearable”
In an article published in Healthy Women, Jaime describes her experience with severe postpartum pain after giving birth to her son, Max. “The pain was unbearable,” she writes. “Since I’d never had a baby before, I had no idea how I should feel after delivery. I just knew I was uncomfortable, swollen and in great pain, with no control of my bladder.”
That intolerable pain landed Jaime in the emergency room days after her son was born. The doctors found that the stitches to repair second-degree tearing that had occurred during delivery had come undone, leaving her with a serious infection. Jaime underwent surgery, and thought she would make a full recovery — but the pain and incontinence persisted.
Jaime’s doctor recommended a number of remedies that all failed. Finally, her obstetrician simply told her to expect to be in pain for the rest of her life.
“Helplessness and disappointment”
She describes her ordeal over the next two years, writing:
“I endured feelings of helplessness and disappointment and continued to fight my OB’s prognosis. I visited numerous specialists — neurologists, urologists, neuro-urologists, and obstetricians. I was determined to resolve the pain, but all I received were misdiagnoses. One specialist suggested I see a spine surgeon. Another sent me for nerve blocks, MRIs, three rounds of pelvic floor physical therapy, an EMG (a procedure to test the health of your muscles and nerves), and nine months of acupuncture treatments. Through this ordeal, my mental health suffered. I experienced depression, anxiety, and occipital neuralgia, with throbbing headaches. I was put on nerve pain drugs, all of which had scary side effects but never relieved my pain.”
Living free of pain
Finally, she saw the doctor who would change her life, an out-of-pocket specialist who determined the cause of her pain was the positioning of her pudental nerve in the middle of her birth canal. “Because of the positioning of this nerve, I should have had a c-section rather than a natural birth,” she says. “Lack of bladder control immediately after delivery was a clear indication of nerve damage. And when I received postpartum surgery for the hematoma, my pudendal nerve was likely cut, causing further complications.”
That discovery led to surgery on Jaime’s right and left pudental nerves, and a year later, she has recovered — and is living free of pain. Her son is now three and a half years old.
Be your own best advocate!
While Jaime’s specific situation is rare, she hopes to advocate for the many women who experience childbirth complications. She writes, “It is not uncommon for women to experience postpartum pelvic pain. It’s also not uncommon for women to receive no diagnosis, no guidance, and little support from their medical team.”
With that in mind, we all need to speak up for ourselves and ask questions, even if they seem embarrassing or pushy. Jaime’s tenacity led to a full recovery that she might not have achieved if she had given up.
“Please always listen to your gut and trust yourself when something does not seem right,” she says. “We need to advocate for ourselves to get proper care and ensure that when we have concerns, our health-care team listens and acts.”
In her case, it made all the difference.
Read another personal story: Pandemic Pregnancy and Delivery