This week’s post is an article written by Lena DeGloma. Lena is a licensed massage therapist, birth doula, herbalist, and currently pursuing her certification in childbirth education. Red Moon Massage Therapy & Doula Care is her private practice in Park Slope, Brooklyn. For more information about Lena, her practice, or the benefits of massage during pregnancy and labor, please see her website at www.redmoonmassagetherapy.com and visit her profile on CiC’s Provider Network.
The Touch of Health for Mom and Baby: Benefits of Massage for Pregnancy and during Childbirth
Aside from the fact that it just plain feels great, why would a woman invest her time and money in prenatal massage or hire a massage therapist–birth doula to attend her birth? As a licensed massage therapist and certified birth doula, I see firsthand the many benefits of prenatal and postnatal massage as well as massage during labor and birth. In addition, numerous controlled studies have been done which have verified many of these benefits. Don’t you just love to find out that something that feels so good is actually good for you? Here’s the scoop.
Massage during Pregnancy
During pregnancy your blood volume increases by 40-50% – that is a lot of extra work for your circulatory system. Most pregnant women 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 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 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 varicosities for you.
Beyond improving circulation, massage is an excellent way to enter the healing state known as the parasympathetic nervous system response, also known as the “rest and digest” response. This can be contrasted with the fight or flight response associated with your sympathetic nervous system. In this stressed state, the body diverts blood and energy away from your digestive and reproductive organs (i.e., away from your uterus) and sends it 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. In contrast, 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 my 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 proper development of your baby.
A study at the Touch Research Institute in Florida found that women who receive regular prenatal massage actually have fewer complications during labor and have newborns with fewer postnatal complications and better performance on assessments of newborn well-being. One of the reasons for healthier perinatal outcomes in women who receive prenatal massage is the fact that massage significantly decreases stress hormone levels in the body. This has been demonstrated in many controlled studies. 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. The effects of excessive stress hormone production during pregnancy cannot be underestimated – in extreme cases it can even lead to premature 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.
Many of my 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 called relaxin circulates through the body, softening the ligaments around your joints. The purpose of 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 impinge particular nerves.
Massage during Labor
Studies have found that women who receive massage while they are in labor have shorter, less painful labors. It has also been demonstrated that mothers who receive massage during labor experience less anxiety during labor, are less likely to use pain medication, and have shorter hospital stays and better mood following birth. Labor involves a delicate hormonal orchestration that is very vulnerable to disruption, even under mild to moderate stress. The primary hormone of labor is oxytocin which is released by the pituitary gland in the brain and causes the uterus to contract. Oxytocin is also released in response to touch, feelings of love, bonding/closeness, orgasm, and breastfeeding. Stress hormones such as cortisol have an antagonistic relationship to oxytocin – meaning they inhibit the release of oxytocin. This is why labor can stall or be prolonged under stress (and also why is it difficult to have an orgasm or to breastfeed under stress). Massage and doula support reduces stress and anxiety (lowers cortisol levels) during labor which helps labor to move along more quickly and smoothly. It is well understood that stress and anxiety increases our experience of pain. I find that when I use soothing massage strokes on my clients between contractions it helps them drop into a more deeply relaxed state (at least in between contractions) – allowing them to cope better with their labor.
Less stress, anxiety and fear equals less pain. But massage during labor can decrease your experience of pain in another way as well. The spinal nerves that exit from the sacrum (the bottom part of your spinal column) innervate your pelvic organs, including the uterus. Pain receptors in the uterus send pain messages through these nerves and up your spinal cord to your brain on a small pathway that is specific for pain signals only. There is a separate pathway that sends messages to the brain that is specific for pleasurable (and neutral) sensations. The pleasure pathway is bigger, meaning messages travel more quickly along this pathway. So, when I massage a client’s sacrum and low back while she is having a contraction, the pleasurable sensation from the massage gets to the brain faster than the pain sensation caused by the contraction – she still feels the pain of the contraction, but the pain is significantly “drowned out” by the massage. This is the same reason why when you rub or squeeze a stubbed toe or burned finger it feels less painful. It is a very simple concept, and it works like a charm. During labor this often makes the difference between deciding to get pain medication and being able to do it naturally.
If you wish to have a natural birth so as to avoid the risks associated with medication, then a birth doula (especially one who is also a massage therapist) is indispensable in helping you cope with your labor using natural methods.