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Study shows massage can reduce severity of pain in labour

By Karen Keast | Last Updated: 20-11-2013

Physiotherapist and midwife Heather Pierce

In her dual roles as a physiotherapist and a midwife, Heather Pierce has witnessed the pain women go through in labour and helped women in their recovery post-birth.

So it comes as no surprise the New South Wales practitioner has welcomed a new study that provides evidence to support the use of massage to control pain during labour.

The study, conducted by researchers in Brazil and published in the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s Journal of Physiotherapy, found health professionals should encourage massage to assist women in labour as it “reduced the severity of pain in labour”.

Researchers also found massage provides the birthing woman with direct contact with another person during the active stage
of labour, providing emotional support, and they also discovered there were no adverse effects on the path of delivery or the newborn.

Heather, a physiotherapist of 30 years who also moved into midwifery more than 10 years ago, said the results help to give women more choice when it comes to their birth.

“Women should be able to choose and if one of their choices is to have a massage, and the woman understands that massage has an effect, she should be able to choose,” she said.

“That massage doesn’t necessarily have to come from a physiotherapist, they also talk about training up partners in the study, but obviously a physiotherapist has specialised skills in massage.”

However, Heather conceded the study’s results were limited and said further research in the area was needed.

“It’s a great trial and it does demonstrate an effect of massage to help women with pain but it hasn’t demonstrated a difference to the women’s uptake of other pain control measures,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean she hasn’t had to have an epidural or that she hasn’t had a caesarean.

“It’s certainly something that can be explored further. Everyone is looking for better outcomes for women and that includes supporting them in labour and helping them cope with pain and empowering them to make choices in labour around pain management.

“If it’s cheap, if it’s non-invasive and makes a difference, I think there certainly is a role there for physiotherapists to get involved in this.”

The study involved 46 women pregnant at 37 weeks gestation with a single fetus, with spontaneous onset of labour, 4-5cm of cervical dilation, intact ovular membranes and no use of medication after admission to hospital.

In the experimental group, physiotherapists provided participants with a 30 minute lumbar massage during the active phase of labour while a physiotherapist attended the control group of participants for the same period but only answered questions.

Heather, who works in two separate jobs as a women’s health physiotherapist and as a midwife in the birth unit both at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital and is also a casual academic at the University of Technology Sydney, said she moved into midwifery to care for pregnant women with a focus on preventative health care.

“There’s a lot of trauma that is associated with birth and that’s where physiotherapists are experienced in picking up the pieces,” she said.

“Hopefully, as a midwife, I will be able to do myself out of a job as a physiotherapist.”
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