Pregnancy comes with many physical changes and often physical and emotional challenges as well. It can be a time of great excitement and anticipation - with side effects of back pain, swollen ankles, anxiety, and more.
Fortunately, massage therapy can be an excellent way to ease some of these physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy. As the benefits of prenatal massage have been increasingly recognized by both pregnant women and the medical research community, this specialized field within the massage therapy profession has grown. More massage therapists are obtaining specialized training in techniques and practices aimed at meeting the specific needs of pregnant women.
In this guide, you’ll find answers to many of the questions you likely have about prenatal massage, including:
• The benefits of massage during pregnancy
• Risks and safety precautions
• How prenatal massage is different & what to expect
Being well-informed about massage during pregnancy will help you get the most benefit out of your experience!
Benefits of Prenatal Massage
Pregnancy can cause a range of uncomfortable physical symptoms. It’s common to experience any or all of the following physical issues: nausea; breast tenderness; back pain and sciatica; swelling of hands, feet, and ankles (edema); leg cramps; fatigue; hemorrhoids; heartburn; yeast infections; constipation; headaches; nosebleeds; and frequent urination.12
Beyond physical symptoms, there can be psychological impacts, as well. Periods of change and transition are stressful for most people - and preparing for childbirth is certainly one of these. Physical pain and discomfort, common during pregnancy, can cause or exacerbate psychological stress. And hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can also impact mood. Many pregnant women experience periods of insomnia, depression, and anxiety.3
Fortunately, massage therapy is a proven method to decrease many symptoms of physical discomfort and psychological stress. Clinical studies have shown that massage therapy can:
• Reduce nausea and vomiting during pregnancy using acupressure techniques4
• Reduce prenatal depression symptoms5 and reduce the severity of postpartum depression when massage therapy is given regularly during pregnancy6
• Decrease stress,7 cortisol levels, and levels of other stress hormones in the general population8 and in pregnant women910
• Improve immune system functioning in pregnant women11
• Decrease low back and leg pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety, increase range of motion, and boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the general population12 and in pregnant women131415
• Reduce sciatic nerve pain in pregnant16 women
• Help reduce swelling in ankles and feet in pregnant women using foot massage and reflexology17
• Reduce the risk of premature delivery18
Massage therapy has been shown to be an effective way to gain specific symptom relief in pregnancy. But a simpler, more holistic way to think of the role of prenatal massage is that pregnancy puts unusual stress on a woman’s body and mind, and massage is an effective tool for lessening that overall burden.
Risks & Safety Precautions
It’s always important to speak with your doctor throughout your pregnancy about any changes to your health and wellness routine.
Massage is generally considered safe throughout pregnancy when practiced by a professional therapist specializing in prenatal massage. Massage is likely lower-risk than many other possible interventions to treat uncomfortable pregnancy symptoms, such as some psychiatric and pain medications.
• High-risk pregnancies
• Conditions involving the placenta (previa, accreta, or abruption)
• Varicose veins or other obvious swelling in the legs
• Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure (hypertension)
• Previous experience of early labor
• Sudden, severe headache symptoms
The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) advises that massage therapy may be performed on pregnant women with pre-eclampsia and placenta problems if the woman obtains clearance from her physician.
Because there is a greater risk for blood clots during pregnancy and varicose veins can be a sign of blood pooling in the legs, the AMTA advises that massage therapists should avoid directly massaging these parts of the body if they notice these signs, as this risks loosening a blood clot. Massage strokes can be performed elsewhere on the body, however.
The American Pregnancy Association advises that pregnant women with most of the above conditions get a doctor’s approval before beginning a prenatal massage therapy program.21
It’s wise to find a massage therapist with specialized training in prenatal massage. Some massage therapists require written clearance from a doctor as well as a signed waiver before working with a pregnant client.
There is little hard research one way or another on the safety of massage during pregnancy. The American Pregnancy Association supports massage therapy during all stages of pregnancy,22 but some health care providers suspect pressure on certain locations of the body during the first trimester might carry a risk of inducing early labor.23
Because miscarriage is very common in general during the first trimester of pregnancy, many massage therapists avoid offering it to preclude any concerns.
What to Expect During a Prenatal Massage
A professional, licensed massage therapist with specialized training in prenatal massage should be familiar with the health conditions contraindicating massage. They should also be well-versed in the cautions and modifications needed to ensure the safest, most comfortable and most beneficial massage therapy experience for a pregnant client.
Prenatal massage differs most obviously from standard massage in that a pregnant client requires modified body positions for greater comfort. A pregnant woman’s growing belly can be accommodated in a number of ways during massage: using bolsters and pillows and a side-lying position, and/or a specially designed massage table.
Don’t hesitate to screen your provider thoroughly and ask for information about their training and experience. A massage therapist trained in prenatal massage will be familiar with the symptoms you may be experiencing and will tailor a massage specifically to best serve your needs.
The Bottom Line
Massage therapy is gaining increasing mainstream acceptance as a safe and effective method to alleviate many of the stresses of pregnancy, both physical and emotional.
Massage therapy is also being employed increasingly during labor to relieve pain and stress and in the postpartum period to aid in sleep quality, reduce depressive symptoms, and encourage overall maternal wellness.
It is clear that therapeutic massage has an important role to play in supporting women throughout their journey from pregnancy to motherhood and beyond. Increasing numbers of pregnant women find prenatal massage to be an indispensable addition to their self-care routine during this exciting but taxing phase of life.
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2“Common Discomforts of Pregnancy”: https://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/common-discomforts-of-pregnancy.aspx
3“Pregnancy as a Psychological Event”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15462597
4“Effect of acupressure on nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. A randomized, placebo-controlled, pilot study”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11584487
5“Prenatal Depression Risk Factors, Developmental Effects and Interventions: A Review”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28702506
6“The effect of complementary medicines and therapies on maternal anxiety and depression in pregnancy: A systematic review and meta-analysis”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30423471
7“Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Pregnant Women's Stress and Immune Function: A Longitudinal, Prospective, Randomized Controlled Trial”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28783372
8“Lower back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11264915
9“Pregnancy and Labor Massage:”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2870995/
10“Pregnant Women Benefit from Massage Therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10212885
11“Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Pregnant Women's Stress and Immune Function: A Longitudinal, Prospective, Randomized Controlled Trial”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28783372
12“Lower back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11264915
13“Pregnant Women Benefit from Massage Therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10212885
14“Pregnancy and Labor Massage:”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2870995/
15“Non-Pharmacological Interventions for Pregnancy-Related Sleep Disturbances”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28150266
16“Massage and Pregnancy - Prenatal Massage”:https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/prenatal-massage/
18“Pregnant Women Benefit from Massage Therapy”:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10212885
19“Massage and Pregnancy: A Powerful Combination”:https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/3852/massage-and-pregnancy-a-powerful-combination
20“Pregnancy and Massage:”https://www.webmd.com/baby/pregnancy-and-massage#3-7
21“Massage and Pregnancy - Prenatal Massage”: https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/prenatal-massage/
22“Massage and Pregnancy - Prenatal Massage”: https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/prenatal-massage/
23“Is Massage Safe During Pregnancy?”https://utswmed.org/medblog/massage-pregnancy-guidelines/