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Giving birth can be as hard on your body as running a marathon

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According to new research, giving birth can be as traumatic to a woman's body as hardcore sports like running a marathon — but doctors often don't treat it that way.

"Childbirth is arguably one of the most dramatic musculoskeletal events the human body undergoes," write the authors of a new University of Michigan study evaluating maternal recovery from labor and delivery. And it turns out that women can get very similar injuries from childbirth as the ones serious athletes get.

A quarter of women in the study had stress fractures similar to the kinds athletes often suffer. Forty-one percent had pelvic muscle tears, and two-thirds had injuries similar to a severe muscle strain.

The women studied were already at higher risk for birth injuries, so these percentages won't hold true for all women. But the researchers estimated that up to 15 percent of women sustain pelvic injuries that don't heal, and that the Kegel exercises doctors typically prescribe will do nothing to help those injuries.

Researchers used an MRI technique that is typically used to diagnose sports injuries. That technique is only just beginning to be used to evaluate a woman's pelvic injuries after childbirth, and it could be a big deal for women who don't recover as quickly as they're expected to and can't figure out what's wrong.

"If an athlete sustained a similar injury in the field, she'd be in an MRI machine in an instant," said lead researcher Janis Miller, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. "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."

Miller added that she hopes the study will help change doctors' one-size-fits-all approach to treating postpartum injuries. She recalled a heartbreaking incident in her own practice: "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.

Miller's remarks are a reminder that in medicine, women's pain tends to be taken less seriously and treated less aggressively. This consistently unequal treatment can lead to dangerous misdiagnosis and unnecessary suffering for women.

Miller's study is also a reminder that, as Vox's Amanda Taub pointed out, pregnancy is painful, difficult, and dangerous, which is why nobody should be forced to go through it against their will. This is true even for uncomplicated pregnancies, and doubly true for pregnancies that result in severe pelvic injury like many of the women in this study experienced.


Update: The headline and lede of this post were changed slightly to clarify that the study didn't explicitly compare giving birth to running marathons, or take a position on which one is more physically taxing. As this post explains, the study showed that women can sustain injuries while giving birth that are similar to sports injuries (including but not limited to injuries you might get from running a marathon), and that using the diagnostic techniques of sports medicine can help some postpartum women who are having a hard time healing.