Recognising Pelvic Girdle Pain

Original Editor - Wanda van Niekerk

Top Contributors - Wanda van Niekerk  

Introduction

Pelvic girdle pain refers to musculoskeletal disorders affecting the pelvis. It primarily involves the sacroiliac joint, the symphysis pubis and the associated ligaments and muscles. It is a common condition during pregnancy but can also develop external to pregnancy. It is a disabling condition and has an impact on daily function and quality of life and it can even contribute to work absenteeism. People struggling with PGP are commonly managed by physiotherapists.[1]
[2]

Definition of Pelvic Girdle Pain

There are various definitions of Pelvic Girdle Pain and historically there have been discrepancies around the terminology regarding pelvic pain and/or low back pain, specifically in the pregnant population.[3] The European guidelines (and most adhered to) define pelvic girdle pain as:

"Pelvic pain that arises in relation to pregnancy, trauma, arthritis and osteoarthritis. Pain is experienced between the posterior iliac crest and the gluteal folds, particularly in the vicinity of the sacroiliac joint. The pain may radiate in the posterior thigh and can also occur in conjunction with/or separately in the symphysis."[4]

Clinton et al (2017)[5] uses the following definition in their clinical practice guidelines for pelvic girdle pain in the antepartum population : "Pain in the posterior part of the pelvis, between the iliac crest, down to the gluteal folds and particularly in the area of the sacroiliac joint. It includes sacroiliac dysfunction or sacroiliac region syndrome, and it can occur with or separately from symphysis pubis pain."[5]

Another term that is also used is pregnancy-related low back pain (PLBP) and should not be confused with pelvic girdle pain (PGP). Pregnancy-related low back pain is characterised by a dull pain, more pronounced in forward flexion, with associated restriction in lumbar spine movement.[6] Palpation of the erector spinae muscles exacerbates pain.[6]

Causes of Pelvic Girdle Pain

Pelvic girdle pain (PGP) refers to musculoskeletal disorders that affect the pelvis, and primarily involves the sacroiliac joint, symphysis pubis and associated ligaments and muscles, and considering these structures within the broader kinetic chain.[7] It is common in pregnancy, but it does also develop external to pregnancy.[8] Causes of pelvic girdle pain may include the following:

  • Pelvic girdle pain is common during pregnancy and postpartum
  • Can be as a result of trauma such as[9]:
    • a fall
    • a motor vehicle accident
    • falling downstairs
    • stepping into a hole
  • Sports injuries
  • Result of arthritis or osteoarthritis

Pelvic girdle pain is not just confined to women, although the vast majority of studies are done around pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy and postpartum.

Other causes of pelvic pain may include:

Physiotherapists that specialises in pelvic health are trained in recognising these other reasons for experiencing pelvic pain.[9] For the purpose of this page when referring to pelvic girdle pain this will entail the musculoskeletal reasons for pelvic girdle pain.

Differential Diagnosis

In the ante-partum population pelvic girdle pain can be associated with signs and symptoms of various inflammatory, infective, traumatic, neoplastic, degenerative or metabolic disorders.[5] The physiotherapist should proceed with caution or consider medical referral if there is a history of any of the following[5][10]:

  • History of trauma
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • History of cancer
  • Steroid use
  • Drug abuse
  • Human immunodeficiency virus or immunosuppressed state
  • Neurological symptoms/signs
  • Fever and/or feeling systemically unwell
  • Special considerations for Pelvic Girdle Pain should include:
    • Symptoms due to uterine abruption
    • Referred pain due to urinary tract infection to the lower abdomen/pelvic or sacral region
  • Other factors that may require medical specialist referral include:
    • No functional improvement
    • Pain not reducing with rest
    • Severe, disabling pain

Other differential diagnoses may include:

Prevalence of Pelvic Girdle Pain

Worldwide between 5 – 10% of people develop chronic low back pain. This leads to[14]:

  • High treatment costs
  • Extended periods of sick leave
  • Individual suffering
  • Invasive interventions such as surgeries
  • Disability

Lumbar nerve root compression sometimes mimic sacroiliac joint radiculopathy. In a study by Visser et al (2013)[15] 41% of the study population had a sacroiliac joint or sacroiliac joint and disc component.[15]

It is also widely accepted that the sacroiliac joint is a pain generator in 10-30% of low back pain cases.[16]

Prevalence of Pregnancy-Related Lumbar Back Pain (PLBP) and Pelvic Girdle Pain

  • 56% to 72% of the antepartum population[17][18]
  • 20% of antepartum population report severe symptoms during 20 -30 weeks of gestation[17][18]
  • 7% of women with pelvic girdle pain will still experience lifelong problems[17][18]
  • 33% - 50% of pregnant females report PGP before 20 weeks of gestation and prevalence may reach 60 -70% in late pregnancy[19]

Considering this high prevalence, it is evident that pelvic girdle pain remains a significant problem globally. Physiotherapists are in the best place to offer and provide individuals with guidance and help in this area.[9] An obvious issue is that there is currently no gold standard for testing of and identifying if an individual struggles with pelvic girdle pain or sacroiliac pain.[9] Further research is needed to guide physiotherapy interventions.[9]

Risk factors for Pelvic Girdle Pain

Risk factors for the development of pelvic girdle pain (PGP) may include[5]:

  • Prior history of pregnancy
  • Orthopaedic dysfunctions
  • Joint hypermobility
  • History of multiparity
  • Hip and/or lower extremity dysfunction including the presence of gluteus medius and pelvic floor muscle dysfunction
  • History of trauma to the pelvis
  • History of low back pain and/or PGP, especially in previous pregnancies
  • Increased Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • Smoking
  • Work dissatisfaction
  • Lack of belief in improvement in the prognosis of pelvic girdle pain
  • Early onset of pain
  • Multiple pain locations
  • High number of positive pelvic pain provocation tests

Risk factors for persistent Pelvic Girdle Pain Postpartum

In a recent systematic review and meta-analysis the following risk factors for persistent pelvic girdle pain postpartum have been identified[20]:

  • History of low back pain
  • BMI more than 25 pre-pregnancy
  • Pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy
  • Depression in pregnancy
  • Heavy workload in pregnancy

Clinical Presentation of Pelvic Girdle Pain

The clinical presentation varies from patient to patient and can also change over the course of a pregnancy

Subjective History

Pain

  • Onset of pain may occur around the 18th week of pregnancy and may reach peak intensity between the 24th and 36 the week of pregnancy.[21]
  • Pain resolves by 3rd month postpartum[21]
  • Pain experienced between the posterior iliac crest and the gluteal fold, particularly in the vicinity of the sacroiliac joints (SIJ) and/or the pubic symphysis.[4]
  • Pain can be local or local with radiculopathy
  • Fortin’s area – rectangular area that runs from the PSIS 3 cm lateral and 10 cm caudal[22]
  • One finger method - Person will often use one finger and point to the painful area, usually within this rectangular area[22]
  • Radicular component of sacroiliac pain –Initially it was thought that radicular pain past the knee is not related to SIJ dysfunction  but Fortin et al (2003)[23] showed that radicular pain from the SIJ can go past the knee and that it can be a cause of SIJ dysfunction. Visser et al (2013) [15] also reported a combination of SIJ and disc-related radicular pain.
  • Pain may radiate in the posterior thigh and can occur in conjunction with/or separately in the the symphysis[4]
  • Pain may be described as stabbing, dull, shooting or burning sensation[24]
  • Pain intensity on VAS averages around 50 -60mm[25]
  • Differentiation between PGP and PLBP – useful to use a patient pain distribution diagram.[5]
    • PGP – located under the PSIS in gluteal area, the posterior thigh and the groin (specifically over the pubic symphysis)
    • PLBP – concentrated in lumbar region, above the sacrum

Functional Complaints

Issues with transitional movements such as[17][26]:

  • Difficulty getting out of a car
  • Difficulty getting up or out of chair
  • Difficulty with mobility
  • May have difficulty with stairs
  • May have difficulty with walking
  • Difficulty standing for 30 minutes or longer
  • Difficulty with standing on one leg – fail blow transfer – going from one leg to another
  • Difficulty turning over in bed - often the worst symptom
  • Decreased ability to do housework
  • Pain/discomfort with weight bearing activities
[27]

Prognosis

Bergström et al. (2014)[28] investigated pregnancy-related low back pain and pelvic girdle pain 14 months after pregnancy. A cohort of 639 women with pregnancy-related back pain or pelvic girdle pain during pregnancy were included in the study. The participants completed questionnaires on pain status and self-rated health and family situations. Follow-up was done 6 months after the initial assessment and of the 639 participants, 200 participants reported having postpartum low back pain or pelvic girdle pain. Another follow-up was completed 14 months after and of the 200 that reported pain after 6 months, 176 completed the questionnaires. Of these participants, 19.3% were in remission and 75,3% reported experiencing recurrent low back pain. At 40 months after the initial assessment, 15.3% of participants reported continuous low back and pelvic girdle pain.[28]

In a long-term follow-up study, Bergstrom et al. (2017)[29] reported that 40.3% of the study participants reported pain to a various degree. The following factors were identified as being associated with a statistically significant increase in the odds of reporting pain 12 years postpartum[29]:

  • Increased duration of pain and/or persistency of pain
  • How participants self-rated their health
  • The prevalence of sciatica, neck and/or thoracic spinal pain
  • Sick leave within the past 12 months
  • Treatment sought
  • Use of prescription and/or non-prescription medication

Bergstrom et al (2017)[29] concluded that for a subgroup of women with pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain, spontaneous recovery with no recurrences is unlikely. The strongest predictors of poor long-term outcome were[29]:

  • Persistency and/or duration of pain syndromes
  • Widespread pain - this may also contribute to long-term sick leave and disability pension

The development of a screening tool to identify women at risk of developing pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain is needed in order to enable early intervention.[29]

Wuytak et al. (2018)[30] conducted a systematic review and identified potential prognostic factors for up to one year postpartum. Only three studies were included in the final review and the quality of evidence for all the factors was rated as low or very low. This could be attributed to the lack of replication, with none of the factors being investigate in more than one study. Considering the uncertainty about the results and the inherent susceptibility to bias the following prognostic factors have been identified in women who are less likely to recover 12 weeks postpartum[30]:

  • History of low back pain
  • Pain in three to four pelvic locations
  • Overweight
  • Six months postpartum, pelvic girdle pain is more likely to persist in:
    • use of crutches during pregnancy by an individual
    • severe pain in all three pelvic locations during pregnancy
    • Presence of other pain conditions
    • Obesity
    • Younger age of menarche
    • History of previous low back pain
    • High co-morbidity index
    • Smoking – conflicting evidence
    • Mode of birth in subgroup of women who had to use crutches during pregnancy, with women who had instrumental birth or caesarean section more likely to have persistent (severe) PGP
    • Emotional distress during pregnancy

References

  1. Beales D, Hope JB, Hoff TS, Sandvik H, Wergeland O, Fary R. Current practice in management of pelvic girdle pain amongst physiotherapists in Norway and Australia. Manual therapy. 2015 Feb 1;20(1):109-16.
  2. Oslo universitetssykehus. Pelvic Girdle Pain - Explained by FORMI. Published on 21 June 2019. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmDxtQtJV_0. (last accessed 12 August 2020)
  3. Bergström C, Persson M, Mogren I. Pregnancy-related low back pain and pelvic girdle pain approximately 14 months after pregnancy–pain status, self-rated health and family situation. BMC pregnancy and childbirth. 2014 Dec 1;14(1):48.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Vleeming A, Albert HB, Östgaard HC, Sturesson B, Stuge B. European guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of pelvic girdle pain. European Spine Journal. 2008 Jun 1;17(6):794-819.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Clinton SC, Newell A, Downey PA, Ferreira K. Pelvic girdle pain in the antepartum population: physical therapy clinical practice guidelines linked to the international classification of functioning, disability, and health from the section on women's health and the orthopaedic section of the American Physical Therapy Association. Journal of Women's Health Physical Therapy. 2017 May 1;41(2):102-25.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Vermani E, Mittal R, Weeks A. Pelvic girdle pain and low back pain in pregnancy: a review. Pain Practice. 2010 Jan;10(1):60-71.
  7. Vleeming A, Schuenke MD, Masi AT, Carreiro JE, Danneels L, Willard FH. The sacroiliac joint: an overview of its anatomy, function and potential clinical implications. Journal of anatomy. 2012 Dec;221(6):537-67.
  8. Chou LH, Slipman CW, Bhagia SM, Tsaur L, Bhat AL, Isaac Z, Gilchrist R, El Abd OH, Lenrow DA. Inciting events initiating injection-proven sacroiliac joint syndrome. Pain Medicine. 2004 Mar 1;5(1):26-32.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Deborah Riczo. Recognising Pelvic Girdle Pain. Course. Physioplus. 2020
  10. Koes BW, Van Tulder M, Lin CW, Macedo LG, McAuley J, Maher C. An updated overview of clinical guidelines for the management of non-specific low back pain in primary care. European Spine Journal. 2010 Dec 1;19(12):2075-94.
  11. Gutke A, Östgaard HC, Öberg B. Predicting persistent pregnancy-related low back pain. Spine. 2008 May 20;33(12):E386-93.
  12. Boissonnault WG, Boissonnault JS. Transient osteoporosis of the hip associated with pregnancy. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2001 Jul;31(7):359-67.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 Tibor LM, Sekiya JK. Differential diagnosis of pain around the hip joint. Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery. 2008 Dec 1;24(12):1407-21.
  14. Meucci RD, Fassa AG, Faria NM. Prevalence of chronic low back pain: systematic review. Revista de saude publica. 2015 Oct 20;49:73.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Visser LH, Nijssen PG, Tijssen CC, Van Middendorp JJ, Schieving J. Sciatica-like symptoms and the sacroiliac joint: clinical features and differential diagnosis. European Spine Journal. 2013 Jul 1;22(7):1657-64.
  16. Booth J, Morris S. The sacroiliac joint–Victim or culprit. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology. 2019 Feb 1;33(1):88-101.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Wu WH, Meijer OG, Uegaki K, Mens JM, Van Dieen JH, Wuisman PI, Östgaard HC. Pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain (PPP), I: Terminology, clinical presentation, and prevalence. European Spine Journal. 2004 Nov 1;13(7):575-89.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Mens JM, Huis YH, Pool-Goudzwaard A. Severity of signs and symptoms in lumbopelvic pain during pregnancy. Manual therapy. 2012 Apr 1;17(2):175-9.
  19. Robinson HS, Mengshoel AM, Veierød MB, Vøllestad N. Pelvic girdle pain: potential risk factors in pregnancy in relation to disability and pain intensity three months postpartum. Manual therapy. 2010 Dec 1;15(6):522-8.
  20. Wiezer M, Hage-Fransen MA, Otto A, Wieffer-Platvoet MS, Slotman MH, Nijhuis-van der Sanden MW, Pool-Goudzwaard AL. Risk factors for pelvic girdle pain postpartum and pregnancy related low back pain postpartum; a systematic review and meta-analysis. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice. 2020 May 5:102154.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Kanakaris NK, Roberts CS, Giannoudis PV. Pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain: an update. BMC medicine. 2011 Dec 1;9(1):15.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Fortin JD, Falco FJ. The Fortin finger test: an indicator of sacroiliac pain. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF ORTHOPEDICS-BELLE MEAD-. 1997 Jul;26:477-80.
  23. Fortin JD, Vilensky JA, Merkel GJ. Can the sacroiliac joint cause sciatica?. Pain physician. 2003 Jul;6(3):269-72.
  24. Sturesson B, Uden G, Uden A. Pain Pattern in Pregnancy and" Catching" of the Leg in Pregnant Women With Posterior Pelvic Pain. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey. 1998 Mar 1;53(3):136-7.
  25. Kristiansson P, Svärdsudd K, von Schoultz B. Back pain during pregnancy: a prospective study. Spine. 1996 Mar 15;21(6):702-8.
  26. Nielsen LL. Clinical findings, pain descriptions and physical complaints reported by women with post‐natal pregnancy‐related pelvic girdle pain. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica. 2010 Sep;89(9):1187-91
  27. PregActive. Pelvic Girdle Pain – Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. Published on 5 August 2018. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpofUYC3ePs. (last accessed 12 August 2020)
  28. 28.0 28.1 Bergström C, Persson M, Mogren I. Pregnancy-related low back pain and pelvic girdle pain approximately 14 months after pregnancy–pain status, self-rated health and family situation. BMC pregnancy and childbirth. 2014 Dec 1;14(1):48.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 Bergström C, Persson M, Nergård KA, Mogren I. Prevalence and predictors of persistent pelvic girdle pain 12 years postpartum. BMC musculoskeletal disorders. 2017 Dec 1;18(1):399.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Wuytack F, Daly D, Curtis E, Begley C. Prognostic factors for pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain, a systematic review. Midwifery. 2018 Nov 1;66:70-8.