By Debby Smith, LMBT

Pregnancy is a time of physical and emotional transformation. Besides the obvious physical changes, the myriad emotions a pregnant woman experiences can often leave her feeling confused, overwhelmed, stressed or anxious. With so much attention focused on the arrival of the baby, moms-to-be often overlook the importance of nurturing their physical and emotional needs. Massage therapy is a safe, effective way to nurture mom and baby through a very special time.

Massage can be effective in relieving many of the common physical complaints experienced during pregnancy. Morning sickness, joint and muscle pain, headaches, constipation, heartburn, leg cramps and fluid retention are some of the classic complaints that can be alleviated through massage.

It is estimated that nearly 80% of all pregnant women experience morning sickness. It is extremely common during the first trimester of pregnancy and can range from a very mild moment of queasiness to recurrent vomiting. Acupressure can be safely and effectively used to alleviate the feeling of nausea. This technique can be learned and then used anytime nausea occurs.

Other common complaints during pregnancy are joint pain and muscle soreness. This is largely due to the added and redistributed weight. With the added weight concentrated in the abdominal area, a woman’s center of gravity shifts, and it results in postural changes that impact the hip and low back area. It is also common for pregnant moms to experience joint pain in other areas, especially in the knees and feet. Massage helps to alleviate these aches and pains by gently stretching and releasing tight muscles. It also enhances circulation and the delivery of oxygen and blood to the affected areas.

Constipation, gas and heartburn are also inconveniences that pregnant moms often contend with. The relaxation effect of massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which translates into increased digestion and intestinal movement.

Massage can also help alleviate leg cramps, headaches and excess swelling. The movement of blood, lymph and metabolic wastes is stimulated by massage and is put back into circulation where it can be eliminated by the body.

Stress plays a significant role in how a pregnancy progresses as well as the birth itself. If a mother perceives a situation as being stressful, her body reacts by releasing stress hormones, which cross the placenta. A 1999 study done at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington indicated that the fetal heart rates of stressed mothers remained higher longer, suggesting a heightened reaction to stress. Continued exposure to stressful situations during pregnancy has been shown to negatively impact birth weight and may lead to pre-eclampsia and pre-term labor. Studies also show that when pregnant women receive massage, the urinary output of stress hormone levels decrease. Massage has an overall calming effect on mother and baby.

Overall emotional health of pregnant mothers is extremely important. Some mothers may experience anxiety during pregnancy. Maternal anxiety and depression during this time has been shown to have negative postnatal impacts. These feelings in new mothers are often associated with feeding problems, and mothers perceive their babies as being fussy and more demanding. According to a study done by the Touch Research Institute, women who received massage while pregnant reported reduced anxiety, improved mood and better sleep patterns.

Traditional oriental therapies such as Shiatsu and Acupressure can also be very effective in use throughout pregnancy, childbirth and during the postpartum period as well. These therapies are based on Traditional Chinese Medicine theory and influence the energy meridians (pathways) in the body. It is believed that when the body’s energy (chi) is blocked or imbalanced in some way, pain and disease results. A massage practitioner who employs Shiatsu or Acupressure techniques helps to restore energetic balance in the body, thereby alleviating physical as well as emotional discomforts. The practitioner should have advanced training in these modalities for use during pregnancy.

Massage therapy can be an integral component of pregnancy and childbirth. Research has shown us that pregnant moms who receive massage have fewer physical complaints, suffer from less pain during labor, give birth to calmer babies, and experience less postpartum depression. Massage can be a safe and effective method of treatment for the many emotional and physical issues surrounding pregnancy. It will undoubtedly contribute to mom experiencing a happier and healthier pregnancy. It is also a priceless gift for the baby to come!

Elaine Stillerman, L.M.T., “Touch for Happier, Healthier Pregnancies”,Massage Magazine, September/October 2000.

Field, T., Ph.D.; et al., “Pregnant Women Benefit From Massage Therapy”, Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 20, March 1999.