Getting a massage can mean different things -- a blissful luxury, an acute stress management technique, an injury recovery strategy, or, in the case of pregnancy-related backaches, a self-care regimen directed at relieving pain. Some scientific studies have shown that massage therapy can do lots of things that pregnant women want and need: It can help with sleep and improve mood, reduce edema (joint swelling) by increasing circulation and moving fluid in the body, and relieve nerve pain, including sciatic nerve pain, by relaxing the muscles that can clench and tighten around nerves and compress them.
But is massage safe during pregnancy?
Pregnant women who are interested in massage therapy should adopt a safety-first approach and see only therapists who has been trained and certified in prenatal massage techniques. The American Pregnancy Association maintains a list of recommended massage therapists, and your doctor might also have suggestions for qualified therapists in your area. Mary Rosser, M.D., Ph.D., an ob-gyn at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York, recommends certified prenatal massage therapists to her patients, but says it's safest to wait until after the pregnancy has passed the first-trimester mark. "The first trimester is the critical time when everything is starting to form," she says. "Many people aren't comfortable in the first trimester anyway; they're just not feeling well." Massage time and money might be better spent later on, when first-trimester discomfort has passed and any back pain issues start to show themselves in earnest.
Always stick with the Swedish massage technique, which involves long strokes over tight muscles. It's best to avoid deep tissue massage and other techniques that might pose a circulation or blood pressure risk, especially when massaging the calves and legs. (Remember, a woman's blood volume doubles during pregnancy.) Make sure the prenatal massage therapist you consult places your pregnant body in a safe, comfortable position. A side-lying position, supported with pillows if necessary, is usually the best way to lie down on a massage table. After 22 weeks, lying on your back should be avoided because it can put pressure on a deep blood vessel that is important for carrying blood and nutrients to your baby. If you have a high-risk pregnancy or high blood pressure, or you experience sudden swelling, speak to your doctor before scheduling any prenatal massage.
Massage therapy for lower back, pelvic, or sciatic nerve pain in pregnancy may not be the best first line of defense for everyone. Colleen Fitzgerald, M.D., the medical director for the Chronic Pelvic Pain Program at the Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Illinois, believes massage therapy should be an adjunct treatment to other methods, such as physical therapy. Although it may provide short-term relief for daily aches, she cautions that "massage can sometimes worsen their pain" as "some patients in moderate to severe pain have heightened sensitivity to pressure in the muscles of the pelvic girdle." Always check with your doctor first to see if massage is right for your body. If it is, you can relax and enjoy a prenatal massage with a certified therapist. Your lower back may thank you!
Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com, and she is the co-author, with yoga teacher Liz Owen, of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain.
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