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Ease pregnancy discomfort with massage and acupuncture

Whether it's your first, second or fifth time, being pregnant is an amazing experience. But it is also very taxing on a woman's body. As a certified nurse midwife, it's important to me to help expectant moms find natural ways to feel better throughout their pregnancies.

Two ways to ease the discomforts of pregnancy are through massage and acupuncture. Below are some of the primary benefits of each to help you decide if massage and acupuncture are right for you.

Massage

Pregnancy changes your center of gravity, adding stress to your back, neck, shoulders and abdominal muscles. When you are pregnant, the placenta releases a hormone called relaxin that helps relax the ligaments. This loosening of ligaments, combined with the added weight of pregnancy, can increase aches and pains throughout the body, especially in joints. Massage can help relieve these pains as well as sciatic nerve pain and swelling in legs that often occurs at the end of pregnancy.

Regular massage can decrease anxiety, depression and mood swings as it reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol, and increases the hormones dopamine and serotonin that are often associated with depression when levels are low. Changing these hormone levels also may lead to fewer complications during birth and for the newborn after birth.

If you have problems sleeping, massage can lead to better sleep. It can also relieve muscle tension caused by the extra weight of pregnancy, improve lymphatic and blood circulation and lower your blood pressure.

Not only does massage help with body aches, but it can help with headaches that may worsen during pregnancy. This is can be helpful if you prefer to avoid medications during pregnancy.

Acupuncture

A key advantage of acupuncture during pregnancy is the help it provides to the digestive system. It can help soothe the digestive system to help with nausea, heartburn and constipation.

Much like massage, acupuncture can reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue. It also helps relieve muscle and joint pain.

In Chinese medicine, acupuncture is believed to work by regulating the circulation of Qi (pronounced Chee and means vital energy). While Western medicine is not completely sure how acupuncture works, one theory is that it stimulates the central nervous system, which releases hormones and neurotransmitters that help dull pain and boost the immune system.

Acupuncture can also prepare the body for labor and may even shorten labor. When combined with moxibustion—burning the herb moxa near the acupuncture point or on the acupuncture needle—acupuncture also can help turn a breech baby. The belief is that this encourages the baby to be more active and turn to the head down position. 

A word of caution: massage and acupuncture should be done only by professionals who are certified and trained to work with pregnant women. The body has certain pressure points that if stimulated can encourage contractions, and these should be avoided until the pregnancy is term. Two such points are just above the ankle on the inside of the leg, and the fleshy part of the hand between the thumb and index finger. There is also an increased risk of blood clots in pregnancy, so deep massage on the legs should be avoided. While there is no evidence that acupuncture and massage are unsafe in the first trimester, for liability reasons, many professionals prefer to wait until the second trimester when the risk of miscarriage is lower.

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