Postpartum physical symptoms in new mothers: their relationship to functional limitations and emotional well-being

Birth. 2008 Sep;35(3):179-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536X.2008.00238.x.


Background: Postpartum physical health problems are common and have been understudied. The purpose of this investigation was to explore the associations among reported physical symptoms, functional limitations, and emotional well-being of postpartum women.

Methods: The study included data from interviews conducted at 9 to 12 months postpartum from 1,323 women who had received prenatal care at nine community health centers located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, between February 2000 and November 2002. Emotional well-being was assessed with the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale and perceived emotional health. Functional limitations measures were related to child care, daily activities (housework and shopping), and employment. A summary measure of postpartum morbidity burden was constructed from a checklist of potential health problems typically associated with the postpartum period, such as backaches, abdominal pain, and dyspareunia.

Results: More than two-thirds (69%) of the women reported experiencing at least one physical health problem since childbirth. Forty-five percent reported at least one problem of moderate or major (as opposed to minor) severity and 20 percent reported at least one problem of major severity. The presence, severity, and cumulative morbidity burden associated with postpartum health problems were consistently correlated with reports of one or more functional limitations and measures of emotional well-being including depressive symptomatology.

Conclusions: Although physical problems typically associated with the postpartum period are often regarded as transient or comparatively minor, they are strongly related both to women's functional impairment and to poor emotional health. Careful assessment of the physical, functional, and emotional health status of women in the year after childbirth may improve the quality of postpartum care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Back Pain / epidemiology
  • Depression, Postpartum / epidemiology
  • Dyspareunia / epidemiology
  • Fatigue / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Headache / epidemiology
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Intestinal Diseases / epidemiology
  • Mental Health*
  • Mothers*
  • Nausea / epidemiology
  • Pennsylvania / epidemiology
  • Postpartum Period*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Puerperal Disorders / epidemiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Urination Disorders / epidemiology