The Science Behind Prenatal Massage
If we had a wonder drug that could do all of this with no inherent risks or side effects, it would be unethical not to give it to to every pregnant person.
UPDATED May 2020.
Aside from the fact that is just plain feels great, why receive prenatal massage? Numerous studies have verified many of the benefits that I have witnessed firsthand over the past 12+ years as a licensed massage therapist specialized in prenatal massage. Don’t you just love to find out when something that feels so good is also good for you? I’ll walk you through some physiology behind the unique effects of massage on your pregnant body.
Circulation. During pregnancy your blood volume increases by 40-50% - that is a lot of extra work for your circulatory system. Most pregnant people notice swelling in their extremities (typically the feet) due to the combination of the extra blood volume, gravity, and the weight of the baby impeding blood flow from the legs back to the heart. This obstruction in circulation can lead to tired and heavy legs, calf cramps (due in part to a build-up of metabolic waste products in the stagnant lower legs), swelling of the feet, and varicose veins. Massage helps to move the blood and excess lymphatic fluid out of the extremities so that it can be recirculated. Numerous studies have demonstrated that massage improves both local and systemic circulation. Improved systemic circulation means more oxygen and nutrients delivered to the cells of your growing baby, more efficient removal of toxins and metabolic waste products, as well as less edema (swelling), calf cramps, and varicose veins.
Nervous system. When your body spends too much time in the stressed state of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response), blood and energy are diverted away from your digestive and reproductive organs (i.e., away from your uterus and baby) and instead these resources are sent to your skeletal muscles (in preparation to fight or flee) – this means less energy and resources for the development of your baby – and poor digestion and increased muscle tension for you. Through the stimulation of deep pressure receptors underneath your skin, massage improves vagal nerve tone and switches on the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system (the “rest and digest” response), sending you into an incredibly deep state of healing relaxation. When you enter the parasympathetic response during massage your blood pressure is reduced, your muscles relax, and your body sends blood and energy toward digestion, healing, and growing your baby. In fact, many of our clients notice that their babies get very active during their massage: when you relax, your baby gets energy. Receiving regular massage supports your body in sending resources to the development of your baby.
Joints & Muscles. Many of our clients wonder why they are experiencing back pain and increased muscle tension even early in their pregnancies before they are carrying much extra weight. During pregnancy a hormone produced by the placenta called relaxin circulates through the body, softening the ligaments around your joints. This is to allow the joints of the pelvis extra flexibility for birth -- the side effect is that all of your joints are less stable during pregnancy. When your joints are loose and unstable, the muscles surrounding those joints tighten up in order to stabilize the joint. Massage can help to soothe and relax these overworked muscles. Sometimes these overly tight muscles can impinge a nerve – such as the infamous sciatic nerve – causing severe pain. Prenatal massage can help to relieve that nerve pain by relaxing specific muscles that can impinge nerves (often with sciatic pain, for example, a spasm in the piriformis muscle deep in the back of the hip is to blame).
Stress hormones. A study at the Touch Research Institute in Florida found that receiving regular prenatal massage was associated with fewer complications during labor and newborns with fewer postnatal complications and better performance on assessments of newborn well-being. One of the reasons for healthier perinatal outcomes in those who receive prenatal massage is the fact that massage significantly decreases stress hormone levels in the body. An excess of stress hormones such as cortisol is known to be detrimental to the health of virtually every system in your body whether you are pregnant or not. There is evidence that chronic prenatal stress can actually program the baby’s nervous system for an overactive stress response system later in life. The effects of excessive stress hormone production during pregnancy should not be underestimated – in extreme cases it can even lead to preterm labor. Studies have found that reduction of stress hormones via prenatal massage leads to less incidence of premature birth and less low birth weight babies.
Fetal Position. Many factors influence your baby’s position in your pelvis at term. No doubt random luck is one of these factors, but some you can influence. The balance of tension throughout your pelvic and abdominal muscles as well as your movement/activity and postural habits can all affect baby’s position. Whether your baby is breech or vertex (head-down) is not all that matters. It is also important for your baby to easily descend into your pelvis at term to put pressure onto the cervix to initiate labor, whether your baby is facing your back or front (known as occiput anterior or occiput posterior), whether their chin is tucked to their chest, and whether their head is tilted to the side (asynclitic) or in alignment. Massage can help to release restrictions around your pelvis, hips, abdominal, and lower back muscles – all of which have the ability to influence whether your baby gets into an optimal position for labor. Optimal fetal position can impact when your labor begins, how long your labor lasts, how painful your labor is, and how likely you are to end up needing various interventions in labor such as Pitocin, cesarean, and more. Check out the website www.spinningbabies.com for at-home resources and more info on this.
If we had a wonder drug that could do all of this with no inherent risks or side effects it would be unethical not to give it to to every pregnant person: prenatal massage can reduce musculoskeletal pain and tension, improve postural balance and fetal position, improve circulation of blood, oxygen and nutrients to your baby, reduce circulating stress hormones that can impact your baby’s nervous system development, and is even associated with lower incidence of premature birth and low birth weight babies. Beyond this, one of the more fundamental benefits of massage therapy is simply an increase in body awareness – and honing this skill during pregnancy can help you immensely when you are in labor. Ultimately, just having soothing and relaxing space to yourself before becoming a parent (or some much needed alone time if this isn’t your first child) is so special during pregnancy — all of my staff at Red Moon and I are honored to be a part of it.
Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Hart, S., Theakston, H., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., & Burman, I. (1999). Pregnant women benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, 19, 31-38. doi https://doi.org/10.3109/01674829909075574
Field, T., Diego, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2004). Massage therapy effects on depressed pregnant women. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 1-9. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01674820412331282231
Glover, V., O’Connor, T.G., O’Donnell, K. (2010). Prenatal stress and the programming of the HPA axis. Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, 35(1), 17-22. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.11.008
Lena DeGloma has a master of science in therapeutic herbalism and is also a licensed massage therapist, certified birth doula, certified lactation counselor, and certified childbirth educator. She is the founder + director of Red Moon Wellness in Park Slope, Brooklyn where she and her associates have been in clinical practice for over 12 years. She is currently serving as president of the Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York and is on faculty part-time at Pacific College of Health and Science in Manhattan and the ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism in Brooklyn. She has taught and written curriculum for several professional training programs for massage therapists, herbalists, and childbirth professionals. She is also the mother of an exuberant 3 year old daughter named Juniper.