Your shoulders ache. Your feet are sore. Your lower back feels like it's been carrying around another person for the past few months – because, well, it has. The discomforts of pregnancy are often overlooked, but when you're living with them, they can make completing everyday tasks feel almost impossible. If you're fed up with the constant aches and pains of pregnancy, you may find yourself wondering whether prenatal massage could offer some relief.
Prenatal massage is a specific type of massage tailored to help relieve the strains and pains caused by pregnancy. Usually, the massage focuses on the areas of the body that are most affected by pregnancy. This includes the lower back, the mid-back, the calves, the feet, and even the stomach. However, while prenatal massage can help you to feel a little more like your old self, it does come with a few risks – especially if you don't visit a trained professional.
If you aren't keen on the idea of massage, you can have a look at our guide for the best massage guns. Please remember to consult your doctor before using tools like massage guns during pregnancy.
Curious to learn more about whether it's the right option for you? We spoke to the experts about the benefits and risks of prenatal massage.
What is a prenatal massage?
"Prenatal, or antenatal, massage refers to any form of massage that a woman receives during her pregnancy,” says Lesley Gilchrist, registered midwife and co-founder of My Expert Midwife. This may involve self-massage, or being massaged by her partner or a professional massage therapist.”
A prenatal massage, also known as a pregnancy massage, is a massage designed to relieve the pain and discomfort that can occur in various areas of the body during pregnancy. Women are able to receive regular massages during their first trimester. In the second and third trimester, pregnant women should receive special prenatal massages. The therapist should use a special table designed to accommodate the woman's changing body shape. Sometimes, prenatal massages are conducted with the woman lying on her side.
- Related: Does massage help arthritis?
A prenatal massage typically focuses on the areas of the body that are most affected by the pregnancy. Ideally, a prenatal massage session should leave you feeling more aligned and relaxed and should relieve pressure on your lower back, feet, and shoulders.
What are the benefits of prenatal massage?
Prenatal massage has several potential benefits in addition to pain relief. Studies and anecdotal evidence show that other benefits include reduced stress, better sleep, and even a better bond with your child.
Pain and discomfort relief
According to the Office on Women's Health (OASH), pregnancy causes pain primarily in the back, abdomen, groin area, and thighs. It can also occur in the legs. One 2014 study found that massage could significantly improve pain in the legs and back.
"It can help to relax the muscles involved in sciatic pain, relieving the discomfort caused by the pinched nerve – as little as 20 minutes of massage per week results in significantly reduced leg and back pain," says Gilchrist. "Also, massage of the face, neck and shoulders can help to alleviate sinus pressure and headaches caused by tension."
Swelling of the legs and feet is another common symptom of pregnancy. A 2020 study found that massage can reduce the fluid build-up that causes this type of swelling. A 2010 study also found that a daily 20 minute foot massage could improve ankle and foot swelling during pregnancy.
Improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and postpartum depression
"Women who enjoyed regular massage sessions during their pregnancy not only reported reduced depression and anxiety in the prenatal period, but also had reduced rates of postpartum depression," Gilchrist says.
Several studies back this up. A 2004 study found that receiving two 20 minute sessions a week beginning in their second trimester reduced depression. A 2020 study found that massage may be more effective than other forms of therapy for pregnant women with depression.
"Massage releases endorphins, which are naturally-occurring hormones that provide feelings of wellbeing and pain-relief,” Gilchrist says. “Endorphins soothe your nervous system, helping you to feel more relaxed and improving your sleep.”
Sleep disruption is a common complaint in the second trimester of pregnancy. A 2019 study found that massage could improve sleep patterns and sleep quality.
Fewer complications during and after labor
"Perineal massage, when performed 3-4 times a week from 34 weeks of pregnancy, can make the perineum - the area of muscle and skin between the vagina and anus – more elastic and reduce the severity of tearing and the need for an episiotomy – a surgical cut to the area to facilitate baby’s birth," explains Gilchrist.
Additionally, she says, regular massage in pregnancy has been shown to decrease pain in labor and to shorten labor by up to three hours.
What are the risks of prenatal massage?
In most cases, prenatal massage is safe and beneficial. However, if you don't have an experienced massage therapist or you aren't sure about your medical history, there can be some risks. "Hesitancy from many women to receive a massage or from some therapists to give one during this period is typically rooted in misinformation and conflicting advice, both of which lead to confusion," says Gilchrist.
- Avoid deep abdominal massage, especially in the first trimester.
- Don't lie on your back after 16 weeks, Instead, the massage should be performed on your side or lying at a 45 degree incline.
- Prenatal massage may not be appropriate for everyone. Check with your doctor about whether it's safe for you.
- Massage isn't always the best solution for sudden swelling, which may be a sign of preeclampsia.
- Avoid deep tissue massage in the legs and upper arms. "This is because pregnancy increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which, sometimes, may not be easily recognized," says Gilchrist.
- Avoid the use of certain essential oils, which are not safe to use during pregnancy. Here are some oils that are safe: lavender, geranium, bergamot, frankincense, grapefruit, peppermint and neroli.
Field, T. (2010). Pregnancy and labor massage, Expert Review of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 5:2, 177-181. http://doi.org/10.1586/eog.10.12
Coban, A., & Sirin, A. (2010). Effect of foot massage to decrease physiological lower leg oedema in late pregnancy: a randomized controlled trial in Turkey. International journal of nursing practice, 16(5), 454–460. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2010.01869.x
Field, T., Diego, M. A., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2004). Massage therapy effects on depressed pregnant women. Journal of psychosomatic obstetrics and gynaecology, 25(2), 115–122. https://doi.org/10.1080/01674820412331282231
Hall, H. G., Cant, R., Munk, N., Carr, B., Tremayne, A., Weller, C., Fogarty, S., & Lauche, R. (2020). The effectiveness of massage for reducing pregnant women's anxiety and depression; systematic review and meta-analysis. Midwifery, 90, 102818. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2020.102818
El-Hosary, E., Soliman, H., El-Homosy, S. (2019). Effect of Therapeutic Massage on Relieving Pregnancy Discomforts, IOSR Journal of Nursing and Health Science, 5(4), 57-64. http://doi.org//10.9790/1959-0504025764
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Meg Walters is a freelance journalist and features writer. Raised in Canada and based in South East London, Meg covers culture, entertainment, lifestyle, and health. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, i-D, Refinery29, Stylist, GQ, Shondaland, Healthline, HelloGiggles and other publications.
When she's not writing, Meg is probably daydreaming about traveling the world, re-watching an old rom-com with a glass of wine, or wasting time on Twitter, where you can follow her @wordsbymeg.