Research finds massage during labor may reduce stress, ease pain

reduce labor pain

The benefits of massage for pregnant women are similar to those for the general population: decreased anxiety, stress, back and leg pain; increased relaxation; and a general overall sense of well being. But pregnant clients may derive a unique benefit from massage: reduced labor pain.

Experts weigh in

Maryann Reid, executive director of Orthomed Massage Clinic in Northborough, Massachusetts, offers prenatal massage in her practice. She notes that stretching the tissue surrounding the pelvis, lower back, intercostals and lower extremity adductors helps to assist with the birthing process.

“We find that many of our clients experience low back discomfort and imbalanced soft tissue due to the redistribution of weight and laxity of tendon ligament tissue,” she says.

Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Health System, also speaks to the benefits of massage during labor. She has conducted numerous studies on the value of massage for a variety of demographics, including pregnant women and infants.

Research results

In 2010, Field published the results of her study, “Pregnancy and labor massage,” which found that “women who received massage therapy experienced significantly less pain and their labors were, on average, three hours shorter with less need for medication” (Expert Review of Obstetrics & Gynecology).

In the study, the pregnant women’s partners were first instructed on how to massage the back and the legs, the areas that experience the most pain, in a side-lying position. They then massaged their partners during the first 15 minutes of every hour of labor.

Admittedly, the massage reduced anxiety, but the mechanisms behind the shortened labor time can be attributed to a couple of different causes. One is the “gate theory,” which suggests that pressure messages, such as those from massage, travel faster than pain messages. So the former message reaches the brain first, closing the gate to the latter message.

Field’s research determined that another underlying mechanism could be an increase in vagal activity following massage therapy. The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and regulates the body’s internal organ systems.

Her findings stated, “In our previous studies, we have demonstrated that moderate-pressure massage and not light-pressure massage elicits a significant increase in vagal activity. According to a functional magnetic resonance imaging study, massage therapy increased cerebral flow in different brain regions involved in depression and stress regulation, including the amygdala and hypothalamus. This implies that massage therapy engages hypothalamic regulation of autonomic nervous system activity, cortisol secretion and limbic activity related with emotional regulation. Psychological stressors that reduce vagal activity increase cortisol levels, but increased vagal activity decreases heart rate and blood pressure, as well as cortisol.”

In 2005, Field and colleagues conducted another study, “Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy,” that looked at the following three levels of massage (International Journal of Neuroscience):

  • Cortisol—a steroid hormone within the adrenal gland that is released in response to stress
  • Serotonin—a monoamine neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well being
  • Dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, motor control, arousal, cognition and reward, among others

The research involved a meta-analysis of other studies, including those related to pain syndrome and stress reduction in pregnancy.

The findings showed that cortisol levels decreased by an average 31 percent when cortisol was examined in saliva or urine. When serotonin and dopamine were assessed in urine, the researchers noted an average increase of 28 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Fields and colleagues concluded that the decreased cortisol levels and the increased serotonin and dopamine levels effected positive outcomes on stressful experiences, which would include labor.