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Pregnancy massage: Does it help?

You may think of massage as a spa luxury to indulge in on occasion. But one of the most beneficial times for massage may be during pregnancy.

Pregnancy massage: What is it?

Pregnancy massage is a catch-all term for any hands-on massage during or after pregnancy. Massage while you are pregnant is also called antenatal massage. Massage in the few months after delivery is called postnatal massage.

A pregnancy massage typically lasts an hour. Some practitioners use a pregnancy massage table. This is a table designed to accommodate a woman's pregnant stomach. Others use specially designed pillows called bolsters to position a woman comfortably on her side. This helps especially during the later stages of pregnancy. Lying on your side is often the most comfortable position for pregnancy massage.

Pregnancy massage: Possible benefits

There have only been a handful of small studies that focus on massage in pregnancy, and so no definite benefits have been established. But one study at the University of Miami School of Medicine in America suggests that massage therapy during pregnancy might have multiple positive effects, including:

  • lowered anxiety
  • Decreased back and leg pain
  • Improved sleep
  • Decreased levels of the stress hormone noradrenaline.

In another study of pregnancy massage in depressed women, researchers found:

  • increased levels of the "feel-good" hormones serotonin and dopamine
  • Decreased levels of cortisol, an indicator of stress
  • An overall improvement in mood.

Research has shown that, for the general population, massage has other potential benefits. For instance, it may relieve pain, or it may boost the immune system to fight off viruses and tumours.

Pregnancy massage: Safe techniques

In the UK, there is a National Occupational Standard (NOS) set for all massage therapists. If you check that your therapist has this training, you can be sure that they have a basic standard of knowledge.

Examples of common types of massage include:

  • Deep-tissue massage, with firm strokes pressing deep into muscles.
  • Swedish massage, with long strokes to muscles and attention to joint mobility.
  • Shiatsu, with pressure and tapping on acupressure points to stimulate the body's natural energy (called qi).

From a scientific standpoint, the mechanisms that make massage therapy work are still largely unknown. More research is needed to understand how applying different types of manual pressure to the body can:

  • relieve pain
  • Stimulate the release of certain hormones like serotonin
  • Improve sleep
  • Promote the physiological response of relaxation.

Pregnancy massage experts adapt their techniques to address the changes a woman's body goes through during pregnancy. For instance, blood volume increases dramatically -- as much as 50% -- during pregnancy. Blood flow to the legs often becomes sluggish. And the levels of anticoagulants in the blood -- designed to prevent haemorrhaging during delivery -- naturally rise.

These changes in circulation put a pregnant woman at risk of blood clots in the legs, typically in the calves or inner thigh. To be safe, pregnancy massage experts avoid deep massage and strong pressure on the legs. Using strong pressure could dislodge a blood clot. Instead, they use very light, slow strokes on the legs. Types of massage to avoid on the legs include deep-tissue massage, deep acupressure, shiatsu, cross- fibre friction, and percussive tapping. All leg massage strokes should move toward the heart.

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all. Some massage therapists avoid massaging the abdomen.

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