Benefits and Risks of Prenatal (Pregnancy) Massage

pregnancy massage

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Pregnancy massage is a type of massage therapy specifically designed to be used during pregnancy. It is also called prenatal massage. Pregnancy massage may help relieve some of the aches and pains of pregnancy. But it does have some risks; it isn't suitable for every person or every pregnancy.

Benefits of Prenatal Massage

While every pregnancy is unique, the changes to the body as a baby grows often cause discomfort. A pregnancy massage can help relieve some of these symptoms along with other benefits for the parent-to-be.

Pain Relief

As the abdomen grows outward, posture changes to realign the center of gravity over the hips. For some people, the stress on the joints and muscles results in low back, pelvic, neck, shoulder, or sciatic nerve pain.

Professional prenatal massage therapy can relieve these aches. Research shows it is effective for leg and back pain during pregnancy.

Reduced Swelling

Some swelling, or edema, is also normal during pregnancy. The fluid buildup tends to be more pronounced in the legs, ankles, and feet because the growing uterus puts pressure on the veins in the legs. Massage may help to reduce fluid buildup.

Better Sleep

Difficulty sleeping is common during all stages of pregnancy, thanks to physical discomfort as well as stress and anxiety. Massage may help improve sleep quality and insomnia during pregnancy.

Relaxation and Stress Reduction

Prenatal massage is also used to boost mood and enhance overall well-being. For example, in one study that measured pregnant women's stress and immune system function, women who received a series of prenatal massages showed significant decreases in stress hormone levels and enhanced immune function.

Additional research shows that prenatal massage can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Both professional massage therapy and massages from a partner can help decrease depression, anxiety, stress, and even preterm delivery. A 2012 study showed an association between prenatal massage and decreased depression, as well as higher infant birthweight.

What Makes Pregnancy Massage Different

A pregnant person's body must be properly positioned and supported during the massage for the comfort and safety of the mother and growing baby. After about 20 weeks, for instance, lying on your back can put excess pressure on your abdomen, restricting blood flow.

During a prenatal massage, you will usually positioned be lying on your side rather than on your stomach or back. This is particularly important during the later stages of pregnancy. Pillows, bolsters, or padding may be used to support your back, knees, and/or feet. Alternatively, your massage therapist may suggest that you sit upright or in a semi-reclining position.

The most common massage technique used during pregnancy massage is effleurage, a long, gliding stroke used in Swedish massage (and also sometimes used to ease contraction pain during labor). If you're used to strong pressure, you'll likely find the pressure during pregnancy massage gentle and light.

While the massage therapist may use deeper pressure in certain areas distant from your belly like your shoulders, the overall pressure may be much lighter than what you are used to. The massage should be tailored to your health concerns. If you are experiencing morning sickness, for example, your massage therapist may avoid using rocking techniques.

Safety and Risks of Prenatal Massage

Few studies have examined the risks of prenatal massage. Little is known about the risks of pregnancy massage for women with a high-risk pregnancy and pregnancy-related issues such as preeclampsia, high blood pressure, bleeding, or gestational diabetes.

Your doctor, for instance, may recommend avoiding massage therapy during your first trimester, or your massage therapist may not be comfortable performing a massage until you reach the second trimester. There is no research linking massage to miscarriage, but since the overall risk of miscarriage is highest in the first trimester, some providers prefer to err on the side of caution.

A qualified massage therapist will ask you to fill out a medical history form and sometimes an authorization from your healthcare provider. You should provide information on health conditions, medications, allergies, family history, and your pregnancy. Be sure to communicate with the massage therapist and let them know if you feel any discomfort during the treatment.

Seek a certified massage therapist who has additional training in prenatal massage. A qualified, experienced massage therapist will know how to position your pregnant body (for example, side-lying reduces the added pressure you would have lying on your back) and which techniques are safe to use.

Properly trained pregnancy massage therapists will know which areas to avoid for your stage of pregnancy and condition. Some massage therapists may avoid additional areas such as pressure points in the ankles, foot, and sacrum (a large triangular bone at the base of the spine), although there is no evidence that these pressure points can induce premature labor.

The safety of essential oils (often used in aromatherapy massage) during pregnancy isn't known and there's concern that some may trigger uterine contractions. Avoid essential oils in your first trimester and consult your doctor if you're considering using them in your second or third trimester.

When to Avoid Pregnancy Massage

As with any new therapy, consult your doctor or midwife before booking a pregnancy massage treatment. Use extra caution if you have a high-risk or complicated pregnancy, including:

  • Increased risk of pre-term labor
  • Preeclampsia or high blood pressure
  • Blood clots or a clotting disorder
  • Problems with your placenta, such as placenta previa

Tips for Enjoying Massage During Pregnancy

Be sure to ask if your massage therapist is certified or licensed by a professional organization, and has training in and experience with prenatal massage. Your doctor or midwife may be able to recommend a qualified massage therapist in your area. Or you can use the locator tool available on the American Massage Therapy Association website.

Before your appointment, drink extra water. Massage can be dehydrating (and you already need extra fluids during pregnancy). Continue hydrating after your massage, too.

When you arrive for your appointment, make sure the environment is clean. The room and linens should appear freshly cleaned and laundered and your therapist should wash their hands prior to beginning your massage.

If you can't find an affordable therapist, massage at home is beneficial too. Ask your partner to rub your feet, back, or shoulders or massage your scalp, or gently rub lotion or vitamin E oil on your abdomen. Even self-massage (for example, using a foam roller) can feel good and provide relief from minor discomforts.

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