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Massage Not Effective for Preventing Tearing During Labor

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May 24, 2001 -- A method long recommended by nurse midwives and others to prevent trauma to a woman's genitalia during labor, and reduce the need for episiotomy, may not be all that effective.

Often when delivering a baby, the doctor will make a small cut in the perineum, the small area between the vagina and the rectum. The procedure, called an episiotomy, is performed to make more room for the baby's head and to prevent tearing of the vagina and perineum. The procedure can result in long-term pain and discomfort for the mother. Some women may also suffer from loss of bladder and bowel control and have difficulty resuming sexual intercourse in the months after birth.

A technique called perineal massage is advocated by many nurse midwives as a natural method to protect the perineum from tearing or needing to be cut during labor. The technique involves massaging and stretching the perineum during the second stage of labor.

Until now there have been few large scientific studies of the technique documenting its effectiveness. In the May 26 issue of the British Medical Journal, however, researchers from Australia who put perineal massage to the test in a group of over 1,300 women in labor say they saw virtually no difference in results between women who got the massage and those who did not.

Study author Georgina Stamp, PhD, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Research into Nursing and Health Care at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, reports that women in both groups had similar rates of tearing and need for episiotomy as well as similar postpartum frequency of perineum pain, pain during intercourse, time to resumption of intercourse, and bladder and bowel control.

Although women in the perineal massage group were less likely than those in the nonmassage group to have serious perineal tears, the authors say the difference was not significant enough that they would recommend the massage as a protective method against tearing.

Nevertheless, Stamp and colleagues found that the overwhelming majority of women in the massage group said they would participate in a similar trial again. That finding, combined with no apparent harm associated with the massage, leads the author to advise midwives to "follow their usual practice while taking into account the preference of individual women."

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