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How effective is massage therapy during pregnancy?

So you’ve just received some good news – you’re pregnant and very soon, you’ll be welcoming a sweet little bundle of joy. Parenthood is a rollercoaster, full of ups and downs but all are rich experiences you’ll treasure. Because of this, you need to start taking of yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally. Although you still have some time before you’re rocking your little one, you should start taking steps to boost your wellbeing as soon as possible.

One of the simplest and most relaxing ways to engage in self-care is to indulge in a massage. Massage is known for its soothing and relaxing effects, and prenatal massage is said to be even more so. Perhaps some of your friends and family members have suggested it. But what are the actual benefits and how effective are they during pregnancy?

A background into massage therapy

Massage therapy has a long history – one that’s deeply rooted in cultures from all over the world. Today, massage therapy has evolved into more than just a body rub. There are many types of massage, all rooted in the same principle but with different, distinct techniques. They aim to improve health in some way, whether it’s to relieve pain, ease sports injuries, improve recovery time, decrease stress, tackle anxiety, depression and insomnia, and promote an overall sense of relaxation.

There are a number of significant benefits that can be achieved from massage therapy. Whether you’re looking to reduce muscle tension, ease chronic aches or are just after a moment of blissful relaxation, a massage can do therapeutic wonders for your physical and emotional wellbeing. Massage is known to be effective for:

•    Easing or eliminating muscle aches and pains
•    Reducing recovery time between workouts
•    Improving joint flexibility and mobility
•    Boosting circulation
•    Lowering blood pressure
•    Improving lymphatic drainage
•    Boosting immune system

Massage can be used to treat many illnesses and conditions, from acute to chronic. Regular sessions can help patients of all ages by soothing the symptoms of various conditions, disabilities and with injury rehabilitation. Modern massage therapists combine their knowledge of human anatomy and physiology with traditional Swedish, deep tissue and sports massage techniques to treat their clients. There have been various investigations into the effectiveness of massage therapy and research, published in peer reviewed journals, have showed that the therapy benefits numerous conditions.

Prenatal massage and how it’s different from regular massage

Prenatal massage, or pregnancy massage, is a style of massage therapy that’s been developed and refined especially for pregnant women. Although it has the same basic principles as regular massage, pregnancy massages use modified techniques because the client is pregnant so the conditions are different. During a prenatal massage, the woman’s body must be properly supported and positioned using pillows and padding. Many prenatal massage therapists have special tables that are designed specifically for the needs of pregnant women. This is very important as it ensures safety as well as comfort for both the mother and baby. If a pregnant woman chooses to try reflexology, which is a popular type of touch therapy that focuses on stimulating the hands and feet, the area between the heel and ankle bone should be avoided. After around 20 weeks, the woman should be positioned on their sides instead of on their backs. Tables that provide a hole for the bell should be avoided as they may cause unnecessary ligament stretching.

How can a prenatal massage help?

Massages are the common go-to for dealing with stress. This is especially useful for pregnant women. Growing and carrying another being for nine months is difficult. It takes a toll on your physical, mental and emotional health. Dips in mood and health can affect your baby, so it’s of the utmost importance to maintain good wellbeing during your pregnancy.

A prenatal massage can help by:

•    Relieving strain and fatigue of joints and muscles
•    Relieving swelling of limbs (swelling is common during pregnancy)
•    Improving circulation and lymphatic system
•    Boosting fresh oxygen flow in the blood to cells
•    Promoting relaxation
•    Improving sleep quality
•    Boosting levels of endorphins and other feel-good hormones
•    Soothing negative feelings like stress and anxiety

Bearing these benefits and the physical limitations of pregnancy in mind, certain styles of massage are preferred or advised over others. Swedish massage is a good example – it uses firm but gentle techniques that can work deeply into stress zones yet are safe for the expecting mother. Swedish massage is preferred over deep tissue or sports massage, which are too intense for pregnant women. Shiatsu and reflexology are good choices too, as they involve varied levels of precise pressures in specific areas of the body. This can help relieve localised tension.

A study into prenatal massage

prenatal massage study

Like regular massage, prenatal massage can be specifically tailored to meet the needs of the individual expectant mothers. They can relieve more than chronic stress and bodily aches. According to the American Pregnancy Association, “massage during pregnancy have often received ambivalent responses from the health community regarding their safety and purpose” but modern research has found that pregnancy massage therapy can be a vital ingredient in maintaining good prenatal care.

Studies conducted over the decades have suggested that hormones that induced feelings of relaxation and reduced levels of stress are significantly lowered when massage therapy was introduced to women’s prenatal regime. Massage helps to regulate mood and improve cardiovascular health. A 1998 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology investigated the link between massage and anxiety reduction in pregnant women. 26 pregnant women were given either massage therapy or relaxation therapy for five weeks. Both therapies were 20 minutes long and the participants had them twice a week.

Both groups reported they felt less anxious after the first session and experienced less leg pain after the first and last session. However, only the massage group said they experienced less anxiety, better mood, better sleep and less back pain by the last day of the study. Plus, it was found that the levels of cortisol and norepinephrine (hormones responsible for stress) were reduced while levels of serotonin and dopamine were increased (low levels of these hormones are linked to depression) in the massage group. These women with their altered hormone levels then experienced reduced complications during birth and fewer cases of new-born complications such as low birth weight or premature births. The results strongly suggested that therapeutic massage as an integral part of prenatal care significantly benefited the expectant mothers and their babies.

What are the risks of prenatal massage?

  1. Increased risk of blood clots during pregnancy as more blood as produced while flow may slow down. The possibility of releasing the clots can be avoided by using long, gentle strokes and staying away from deep, intense massages.
  2. The pregnant belly is larger and heavier than a normal belly, so should be supported with pillows and padding. It’s best to avoid massage in that area
  3. There’s no evidence to suggest massage can increase the risk of miscarriage, but doctors recommend avoiding it during the final trimester
  4. There’s little known about the complications associated with massage for women experiencing pregnancy-related problems like extreme morning sickness or gestational diabetes, but it’s safer to avoid massage if this is the case

Bottom line is if you’re thinking about prenatal massage, check with your physician first and choose a highly experienced and trained therapist. A lot of evidence suggests that prenatal massage is extremely beneficial for expectant mothers and can help you get the positive head start on parenthood.

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