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  • Karen Stoner, LMT

You Can't Massage A Pregnant Woman's Feet - Myth Or Fact?

I was recently watching an evening tv drama in which a character and his pregnant wife were in a class and the instructor said, "Time for foot massages! Now who can remember what part of the feet we completely avoid?" To which the character (a doctor) replies "The ankles". This reminded me how often I hear things like this in regards to massaging pregnant women's feet. It was nice that the show actually mentioned that foot massage is ok while pregnant, however it stated to "completely avoid" the ankles without any explanation as to why.

Not massaging a pregnant woman's feet is one of the more commonly heard "tips" when it comes to prenatal massage. Many pregnancy books and sites claim that foot massage can cause lots of problems, most commonly that it send a woman into early labor, so it is best to completely avoid it. Some statements are a little more lenient (like the tv show I was watching) and say that foot massage is ok, but with certain limitations. So what is the truth? The fact is that, like many things, somewhere there was a small grain of a fact and over time it bloomed into something that became a full-blown myth, urban legend, whatever you want to call it. So how exactly did this myth come to be?

Myth origin #1: I've mentioned this in a previous article, but one culprit here are two widely heard of, but often misunderstood, massage modalities known as acupressure and reflexology. In these types of massage, pressure is applied to a specific point on the body (acupressure) and in the feet (reflexology), and depending on where certain points are located, the points can have an effect on certain parts of the body. The fear comes that if certain reflexology points are touched, it can cause labor to start.

Facts: While acupressure and reflexology can have an effect on certain parts of the body, very specific things need to happen. In acupressure, static pressure needs to be applied directly to the specific point and held for 3-5 seconds. Not something you generally see in a gentle massage where the strokes generally keep moving. As far as reflexology goes, there are points located on either side of the heel that relate to the ovaries and uterus, as well as the fallopian tubes arching over the foot. Not exactly located in the ankles, but loosely in that general area, hence the source for the advice to avoid it. Once again though, just a gentle massage over this area is not reflexology per se, only if you specifically target this area with direct and sustained pressure. Another reason "ankles" may be lumped into this is because there is one specific acupressure point higher up on the outside of the lower leg (about 3 finger widths up from the ankle bone) that has, in some studies, had a small effect of making contractions stronger once labor has already started, but no actual proof that pressing on that point can trigger or start labor. Basically, acupressure and reflexology can't be done by accident; they are very focused and purposeful types of massage that you can't "trigger" unknowingly, so no gentle, normal types of massage done for foot relief should create any problems.

Myth origin #2: Another direction that I've heard this myth come from was not actually from the massage world. Originally, there was concern about cheap or low-end manicure and pedicure salons who didn't clean their tools correctly, which left the opportunity for women to get infections in their cuticles from the poorly sanitized instruments. Infections during pregnancy are always a concern, so women were encouraged to "stay away from cheap nail salons" - which, like the old game of telephone, turned into > "stay away from all nail salons" > "Don't get manicures or pedicures while pregnant" > and finally, (since some salons include a foot or leg massage with their pedicures) > "Don't get massages on your feet or legs while pregnant". So you can see how something with a small, good intention, can spiral into something much more vague and universal.

Side fact: In all the talk about massaging feet, many times the phrase "and legs" gets lumped in there as well. This one gets a little trickier, because there are some small legitimate concerns about massaging legs during pregnancy. The fact is that due to the increase in a woman's blood volume during pregnancy, and thanks to gravity, a woman's legs can get much more tired, swollen, and heavy while pregnant. Massage can help immensely with these issues, however with this increased blood volume, there is a slim chance that a woman can develop issues such as blood clots in her legs or certain kinds of swelling or edema that a doctor needs to monitor. This does not mean that leg massage is completely off limits, it is just better if any lower extremity massage is done very lightly, or done by a professional who is trained to know what to do and what to look for so that the massage can be done safely. Nevertheless, just because the possibility of concern may be there, if the doctor says everything is fine, the instances of an actual problem can be very slim, so once again, even though there is a small grain of truth in there, it doesn't mean that massage as a whole needs to be avoided when, in the right hands, it can actually be very helpful.

Overall, every pregnant mother does need to be careful about what she does to her body. Despite the plethora of information at our fingertips, with that also comes a plethora of mis-information. If a woman is concerned about whether something heard or read is fact or a myth, she should always ask her doctor. The doctor will give straight information, and even be able to specifically check for any conditions that may make a massage unadvisable. A massage therapist who is specialized prenatal massage should be able to clear up the difference between myths and facts and explain to you why. There is nothing wrong with hearing a myth and striving to be careful, however the best way to be careful is to know the facts behind the myth so that the myth doesn't steer you away from something that might actually be helpful.

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