A blend of massage and group interpersonal psychotherapy brought a range of benefits to depressed pregnant mothers, including decreased depression, anxiety and cortisol levels, according to recent research.

The study, “Benefits of combining massage therapy with group interpersonal psychotherapy in prenatally depressed women,” involved 112 pregnant women who had been diagnosed with depression.

All the women were of low socioeconomic status. To participate in the study, they had to be age 18 or older with an uncomplicated pregnancy. Women with medical conditions, including psychiatric disorders like anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder, were ruled out of the study.

Among the participating subjects, 5 percent were white, 27 percent were Hispanic, 31 percent were immigrants and 68 percent were black. As for marital status, 23 percent were married, 39 percent had a significant other, 35 percent were single and 3 percent were divorced.

The women in the study were randomly assigned to either group interpersonal psychotherapy or group interpersonal psychotherapy combined with massage. Baseline measures were gathered prior to the first session.

These measures included saliva samples to assess cortisol levels, the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, the State Anxiety Inventory, the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory and a relationship questionnaire.

Outcome measures were evaluated again at the end of the study. In general, the investigation began when the women were at a mean of 22 weeks of gestation and ended when they were at a mean of 28 weeks gestation.

Group therapy sessions were held for one hour once per week for a total of six weeks. These sessions focused on processing pregnancy experiences and problems within relationships. For the women assigned to receive massage therapy in addition to the group therapy, this occurred once per week for six weeks for a total of 20 minutes per session.

Massage sessions took place with the pregnant woman on her side, supported by pillows. The practitioner used moderate pressure to massage each subject’s head and neck, followed by her back, arms, hands and feet. Ten minutes of massage were applied to each side of the pregnant subjects.

Results of the study revealed the depressed pregnant women in both groups benefited from the interventions, but the group that received massage therapy showed greater decreases in depression and anxiety, as well as significantly lower cortisol levels.

In addition, subjects who were assigned to receive the combination of massage and group therapy had greater compliance rates, which meant less of them skipped sessions or dropped out entirely.

“This greater compliance following massage therapy may encourage the women’s prenatal care visits and, in turn, reduce risks for prenatal complications and non-optimal neonatal outcomes,” state the study’s authors.

Authors: Tiffany Field, Osvelia Deeds, Miguel Diego, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Andy Gauler, Susan Sullivan, Donna Wilson and Graciela Nearing.

Sources: Touch Therapy Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine, Florida; Fielding Graduation University in California; and University of Alabama. Originally published in Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2009) 13: 297-303.