Is Prenatal Massage Safe During the First Trimester?

Just about every pregnant woman has been given a laundry list of do’s and don’ts for what she should (or should not) do with her body during pregnancy. Generally, people offer this advice with the best of intentions — to make the prenatal experience healthy and safe for mother and child. However, many of these suggestions are based on myth and misinformation. This is especially true for myth that massage can negatively impact pregnancy or cause a miscarriage.

The study of reflexology notes that certain points in the feet, ankles and shoulders can help prepare a woman’s body for labor and influence contractions. However, a trained reflexologist/acupuncturist or acupressure bodywork must hold these specific points for very long periods of time (5, 10, 30+ minutes at a time) before any changes may begin to take place. There are contradictory or inconclusive findings about the efficacy of reflexology/acupuncture in inducing labor, but there is no credible research that indicates simply massaging a woman’s ankles or shoulders will cause the body to spontaneously begin labor, and certainly not in the first trimester.  

The sad and frustrating truth is that the vast majority of miscarriages are caused because chromosomal abnormalities which prevent the pregnancy from becoming viable (American Pregnancy). There are many other causes of miscarriage and, dishearteningly, most of them are out of the control of the pregnant woman. It is natural to reach out for answers to what could have caused the loss of a pregnancy. There may have been coincidences where a woman received a massage in her first trimester then miscarried a day or two later and a mental association may be created between the loss of the pregnancy and the massage. But an association is not a cause.

safety of prental massage during the first trimester

If you have concerns about receiving a massage during your first trimester, make sure to talk with your massage therapist so you feel comfortable with the work you are about to receive.

For the vast majority of women, prenatal massage is a safe and effective option during all stages of pregnancy. There are some contraindications and adaptations that massage therapists need to take into consideration during the first trimester, but that is the case for any number of different health conditions. Any licensed massage therapist can safely give a prenatal massage during the first trimester, but a Certified Prenatal Massage Therapist will be more aware of considerations, positioning and precautions specific to a prenatal massage in all stages of pregnancy.

If you’re in your first trimester and are ready for a massage, contact your massage therapist so you can discuss any concerns that you may have. Most massage therapists will be very happy to listen to your thoughts and answer any questions. Massage can provide great benefits to both mother and baby during pregnancy, but it’s important  that the expectant mother feels comfortable physically and emotionally while she is receiving her massage.

So why do some massage therapists refuse to provide massage for women in their first trimester? I’ll go over some of those reasons in the next post.

Prenatal Massage – What’s the Research Say?

My introduction to power of prenatal massage came very early in my first pregnancy. By seven weeks into my pregnancy I began experiencing the pain and discomfort associated with sciatica. I was no longer able to lie on either side without electric pain shooting from my hips and along the outside ridge of my leg. The nights were long and restless — and it didn’t bode well for the remaining seven months of my pregnancy.

At the suggestion of a chiropractor, I began seeing a massage therapist to help relieve the pain. By the end of the first session, the LMT had identified the source of my pain which had eluded both my midwife and chiropractor. Over the course of several weeks, the LMT treating me utilized a variety of modalities to address the sciatic nerve compression.

Prenatal Massage Kept Me Active

Hiking 7 weeks along during my first pregnancy. Regular prenatal massage helped ease sciatic pain that started at this early stage in this pregnancy.

The remainder of my pregnancy I received massage about every eight weeks, and more frequently as my due date neared.

While at the time I felt this was simply an indulgence, research lead by Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami found that the serotonin levels in expectant mothers increased for up to two weeks after massage. This natural increase in serotonin can help ease depression by decreasing the cortisol hormone, one of the physiological causes of depression. Massage therapy increased cerebral flow in different brain regions involved in depression and stress regulation, including the amygdala and hypothalamus (Fields).

While prenatal massage can seem just like a way to get the aches and pains out, research indicates clear benefits for mother and child. With the enormous demands placed on the circulatory system during pregnancy, blood volume may increase up to 60 percent compared to pre-pregnancy levels. Massage increases blood circulation, which provides more oxygen and nutrients to both mother and fetus and stimulates the lymph system, thereby increasing immunity and removal of toxins (Vincent).

Additionally, massage can be one of the best ways to address maternal stress. Stress can interfere with fetal brain and central nervous system development, and negatively influence a higher incidence of miscarriage, prematurity, prolonged labors with more complications, and increased perinatal fetal distress resulting in low birth weight babies, postpartum infant irritability, restlessness, crying and digestive disturbances (Martin).

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When a Terrible Massage Leads to a New Career

Remember when you were a kid and there was a special talent that you had that none of the other kids could quite manage? For my brother it was making a fire truck siren sound so loud and so clear that the neighbors came out of their houses expecting to see a fire truck scream down the street. For me, it was the magic ability of my hands to make my mom, aunts and grandfather giddy with relief as I’d work on their aching shoulders and legs.

Even from a young age people said I should do massage professionally. Did I listen to them? Nope. Not even a little bit. While I liked doing it and loved the way people responded, I didn’t see massage therapy as a career choice. Instead I studied my way through college then hopped around stressful marketing jobs for a decade. For a brief moment around age 24 I considered enrolling in a massage therapy training but passed when I learned that it was a 6 month program — because at age 24 a six month commitment seemed like a lifetime. (File under: Things that you think only in your early twenties)

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On vacation with my young son in 2013, the day after a terrible massage that ironically led me to a career as a massage therapist.

But at the right time in life — ironically after receiving a very lackluster massage which made me think, “Hey, I can do a way better job than this person just did” — I finally got serious about embracing my natural talent.

Seven months earlier I had welcomed our first child and going back to the stress of office life wasn’t a way I wanted to spend my time. During that pregnancy a wonderful massage therapist helped ease some serious sciatic issues that began plaguing me as early as seven weeks. I have never forgotten how her work made my daily life so much better and it’s one of the reasons so much of my work focuses on prenatal and postpartum clients. 

A few weeks after that terrible massage opened me up to the possibility of a new career, I stumbled into an open house at an extraordinary massage therapy school. My training at Cumberland Institute of Holistic Therapies opened my eyes to a new way of understanding the mind-body connection and I’ve been hands on ever since.