Why did I want to write this post about pregnacy and ankle massage?
After my two pregnancies and seeing a post on a prominent Facebook parenting group for the Upper East Side of New York, I started thinking about writing this blog. In the post, the OP had asked the group, “Is it safe to get a pedicure or foot massage while pregnant?” Apparently, some people had heard it could cause miscarriage. I am not going to post the link to that discussion, as it is not fair to “out” people for their private views and conversations on another platform, one meant solely for the ears of parents. I’m sure the post is searchable, and you might find another in any parenting group by searching “massage and pregnancy” or “ankle massage and pregnancy”. Given that massage therapy is my vocation, I had watched the post grow, in part because it is actually fairly rare that massage gets posted about at all. What I saw unfold was that a great many people are wildly misinformed about massage, but are perfectly willing to give advice on what is medically appropriate for pregnant women based entirely on hearsay.
Where does the myth of ankle massage causing miscarriage come from?
The advice fell into three categories. The first was the “I heard massage on the ankles or specialized pressure points can cause a miscarriage”, some posters going so far as claiming it as fact. So let’s look at that specific misinformation. It is NOT a fact. The whole ankle massage myth is based on Eastern medicine pressure points. Eastern medicine is traditional medicine, which means it is based on philosophy, not on clinical trials and research (although clinical trials and research DO exist for eastern medicine NOW covering a great many areas). I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with adding Eastern Medicine to your care. I am not here to bash Eastern medicine. Women should be wary of adding fear to the list of things their complementary health care brings to the table as part of that.
In the Eastern pressure point/acupuncture philosophy, certain points on the body correlate to other body parts and functions. Stimulating them, and meridians, might be part of a holistic care plan, and many people find value in that kind of treatment as a supplementary or management tool. I want to be clear though, that if I am in medical distress, I do not seek out an acupuncturist—I want to see a medical doctor.
In writing this, I tried using Google Scholar to find any existing research on ankle massage and miscarriage, or pressure points and miscarriage, but I could not find anything. In other words, I found no research to support the theory that ankle massage or pressure points can cause miscarriage in any way. What I DID find is many articles written by reflexologists and on pregnancy sites such as this on Hellomotherhood: which have published articles stating that it is dangerous simply because the philosophy says so, without any research to substantiate that claim. From a medical point of view, there is no real correlation between miscarriage and ankle stimulation. In fact, as a trained massage therapist, if I could stimulate your baby to come by pressing a few spots on your leg, I would probably be able to earn a great deal more than I do now. At week 40 you are rather desperate to get the baby out!
Is the idea of ankle pressure points supported by research? And what should we focus on?
What should women be paying attention to in terms of risky activities? Their focus instead should be things like “Am I a high-risk pregnancy?” “Have I been cleared by my doctor for this activity?” “Will there be any substances used in my treatment that may not be appropriate for a pregnant person?” (see essential oils) “Is my therapist experienced in prenatal massage?” These are far more valid concerns. Traditional medicine can be an important part of care especially in cultures where it connects people, but we need to reject the parts of traditional medicine that cause fear or people and spread misinformation. If we cannot support an idea with research, it is only an opinion. But we don’t recommend you simply take our word for it. Look for articles that are linked with supporting evidence like this one about prenatal massage and ankle massage from “Massage and Fitness Magazine.”
What about first-hand experiences of people who went into labor after a foot massage?
The second kind of so-called proof of danger that was given as a reason to avoid ankle massage during pregnancy came from “experiential proof”. People often are not objective by nature. We are wired to find meaning in things. So a number of women stepped up to say things like “I had a massage and asked to have my ankles massaged at the special points, and then I went into labor.” While it might not be unreasonable to assume that if you did “A” and then “B” happened, they are connected. “B” might just as easily have happened WITHOUT “A”. This is an issue of correlation versus causation. We would have to look at a substantial amount of data to be able to prove that “A” actually caused “B”. I would cite one of my favorite educational sources on science, The Kahn Institute. Here is the example they put forth:
Correlation vs Causation: see the example
“Liam collected data on the sales of ice cream cones and air conditioners in his hometown. He found that when ice cream sales were low, air conditioner sales tended to be low and that when ice cream sales were high, air conditioner sales tended to be high.
—Liam can not conclude that selling more ice cream cones causes more air conditioners to be sold. It is likely that the increase in the sales of both ice cream cones and air conditioners are caused by a third factor, an increase in temperature.”The Kahn Institute
The Kahn Institute has an entire post on this subject if you want to learn more about or check out your reasoning skills. Correlation and causation can be tricky for people because we want things to have meaning and time is linear. We attribute meaning to things that happen just before or after an event. A perfect example would be athletes who wear their “lucky” socks or people who tell you to wash your car if you want it to rain. It is easy to be tricked by this kind of reasoning, so listen closely to what people tell you for evidence of their claims.
What about hearing a story about early labor and ankle massage?
The next kind of comment that I saw was a combination of correlation and causation mistakes plus hearsay. It is the weakest of all the arguments. These posts said in effect “I had a friend once who went into early labor after a massage”. Indeed that could be horrible and scary. At the heart of it, though, we do not know if those two things were actually interrelated. AND we don’t know the whole story. What we do know is, if you have a massage late in pregnancy, at some point you will go into labor. The sum is it is hearsay and could have been filtered in any number of ways by that claimant.
Miscarriages are common and we need to talk about them
The truth is, miscarriages and pregnancy loss are very common, and often not preventable. There is actually a day designated to encourage advocacy around not keeping these struggles silent. October 15th is National Pregnancy Loss and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.* The fact that people often do not talk about their miscarriages can conceal just how common losing a pregnancy actually is. This can contribute to rumors or concerns that you must have done something to lose the pregnancy. It contributes to guilt, poor mental health, and poor understanding of the facts. There is no room for blame in health care, especially in issues like a loss. A woman could carry that “what if” her entire life when it is not reality.
What is the truth about having a foot or ankle massage while pregnant?
Getting an ankle massage or foot massage during pregnancy is a perfectly acceptable way to handle stress and pamper yourself. Rest assured that there is no medical reason not to have one unless you have been told by your doctor for OTHER reasons that you should not. I enjoyed them successfully during my pregnancies, although markedly less with the second one because I spent so much time chasing my toddler 🙂 Taking care of your health means taking care of yourself.