Little is Known About the Challenges Affecting Pregnant Women With Physical Disabilities

Published on The Daily Femme – Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Contributed by Annamarya

While over a million women of childbearing age have a physical disability, and a large majority appear to give birth to healthy babies, little is known about how many give birth each year and the added challenges they face while pregnant according to a recent Associated Press article.

It’s a population the National Institutes of Health researcher Dr. Caroline Signore, who, due to a spinal cord injury, uses a wheelchair, called “invisible” and one that’s on the rise. One remedy to this perturbing lack of research, recommended the NIH workshop, is to track pregnant women with disabling conditions through a comprehensive registry and field a number of principal concerns, such as:

1. Pursuing small studies that discovered women with certain disabilities are more likely to experience low birth weights, C-sections, and preterm births, of which the reasons are still uncertain (Signore does offer some insight: Women with MS or spinal cord injuries have higher incidents of urinary tract infections, which are a risk factor for preterm birth and “smaller babies.” Additionally, while capable of a vaginal birth, women with spinal cord injuries often undergo C-sections due to wary doctors).

2. The effect of pregnancy’s weight gain and fatigue on balance and its contribution to falls which in turn limit mobility and independence.

3. The role played by higher levels of day-to-day stress

4. If postpartum depression is a greater risk.

There are, however, studies conducted into the challenges faced by pregnant women with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that is potentially debilitating.  According to the Associated Press, MS symptoms have a tendency to temporarily improve during pregnancy, which may be attributed to changes in hormones, and 30 percent of MS patients experience severe flare-up symptoms months after giving birth, episodes which breastfeeding can sometimes prevent.

Still, for Signore, the solutions to treating pregnant women with physical disabilities extend beyond discerning key medical questions. They also lie in assessing and adapting structural environments to ensure women with mobility issues receive proper care, even before they enter the medical practice. Some of the ways physicians can make appointments smoother include purchasing scales with the capacity to weigh wheelchair-bound women;  having exam tables that can be lowered to the floor in order to accommodate people with impaired mobility; and providing easily reachable lever handles or automatic door openers at buildings ingresses and egresses.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised that doctors are not as equipped to understand the challenges women with physical disabilities face while pregnant. As I further learned in my interview with UK-based writer Diane Shipley, there are restrictions in the medical world when treating people with disabilities that often leaves them deprived of proper care, services and support. And, in 2011, that should not be. With the number of medical, technological, and social advancements that occur every day, there is just no excuse as to why in-depth research is not available in regards to other disabling conditions, aside from MS, affecting women and their pregnancies. In the end, I could only hope that Signore’s charge to change that reality bears some fruit.

The Associated Press: Physical disabilities add challenge to pregnancy

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