Perineal Massage to Reduce Tearing: A Look at the Evidence

Tearing during childbirth is common. Tears in the perineum can cause post-partum pain, but they usually don’t cause any severe or long-term complications. Natural tearing has been shown to have better outcomes as opposed to performing an episiotomy. And yet, tearing in childbirth is listed as one of women’s biggest fears. Several childbirth books recommend that women perform perineal massage in the weeks leading up to birth as a way to stretch the perineal tissues and reduce the chance of tearing. Today, Rebecca Dekker of Evidence Based Birth, takes a look at the research on perineal massage during pregnancy and provides information on its effectiveness.

 

By Rebecca Dekker, PhD, RN, APRN of Evidence Based Birth

 

What is perineal massage?

It is thought that massaging the perineum during pregnancy can increase muscle and tissue elasticity and make it easier for a mother to avoid tearing during a vaginal birth. Typically, women are taught to spend about 10 minutes per day doing perineal massage, starting at about 34-35 weeks of pregnancy. Women are taught to insert 1-2 lubricated fingers about 2 inches into the vagina and apply pressure, first downward for 2 minutes, and then sideways for 2 minutes. The massage can be done by the woman or her partner, and sweet almond oil is sometimes used for lubrication (Labrecque, Eason et al. 1999).

 

What is the evidence for perineal massage?

In 2006, Beckmann and Garrett combined the results from four randomized, controlled trials that enrolled 2,497 pregnant women. Three of these studies involved only women without a previous vaginal birth (mostly first-time moms). One study enrolled women with and without a previous vaginal birth. All four of the studies were of very good quality.

 

Beckmann and Garrett found that women who were randomly assigned to do perineal massage had a 10% decrease in the risk of tears that required stitches (aka “perineal trauma”), and a 16% decrease in the risk of episiotomy—but these findings were only true for first-time moms.

 

It is important for you to understand that this is a 10% reduction in relative risk, and relative risk is different than absolute risk. Let me give you an example. Say you are a first-time mom, and let’s pretend your absolute risk of perineal trauma is 50%. A 10% decrease in relative risk means that your absolute risk decreases by 5% (because .5 X .1 = .05). So for you, doing perineal massage reduces your absolute risk of perineal trauma from 50% to 45%.

 

*As a side note, all of the numbers I am reporting below are changes in relative risk.

 

Importantly, for second-time moms who had already had a vaginal birth, prenatal perineal massage did not reduce the risk of perineal trauma (any tearing requiring stitches). However, second-time moms who massaged did report a 32% decrease in the risk of ongoing perineal pain at 3 months post-partum.

 

Surprisingly, Beckmann and Garrett found that the more frequently women used perineal massage, the less likely they were to see any benefits. Women who massaged an average of 1.5 times per week had a 17% reduced risk of perineal trauma and a 17% reduced risk of episiotomy. Women who massaged between 1.5-3.4 times per week had an 8% reduced risk of perineal trauma.

 

Interestingly, women who massaged > 3.5 times per week experienced NO benefits and had a longer pushing phase of labor by an average of 10 minutes. So basically the finding was: the less frequent the massage, the better off the outcomes. However, this finding was unexpected, and the researchers had a hard time explaining it. I think we should interpret this result with caution, because in the largest clinical trial on perineal massage (included in Beckmann and Garrett’s review), Labrecque et al. (1999) found that the more often women did the massage, the more likely they were to avoid any tears.

 

Other results: 

There were no differences between women who did prenatal perineal massage and those who did not with regard to:

  • First degree tears
  • Second degree tears
  • Third or fourth degree trauma
  • Use of forceps or vacuum during delivery
  • Sexual satisfaction 3 months post-partum
  • Pain with sexual intercourse 3 months post-partum
  • Uncontrolled loss of urine or bowel movements 3 months postpartum

 

Wait, I’m confused. You say that there was a significant decrease in perineal trauma requiring suturing. But there was no difference in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th degree tears. How can this be?

It’s important for you to understand that perineal trauma is an “umbrella” category that means all types of trauma requiring stitches, including episiotomies. Perineal massage during pregnancy decreased the overall risk of perineal trauma (the umbrella outcome), but the effect was too weak to see any difference with each of the individual outcomes (first degree, second degree, etc.). Also, the researchers think that the overall decrease in perineal trauma may have been due to the decreased episiotomy rate in the perineal massage group.

Why would perineal massage during pregnancy reduce the rate of episiotomies, but not tears?

The researchers guess that the women who were trained in perineal massage were highly motivated to birth with an intact perineum, so maybe they were more likely to refuse an episiotomy. Fewer episiotomies would then mean fewer incidents of trauma requiring stitches.

So what can we learn from the evidence?

During pregnancy, massage of the perineum can reduce the risk of tearing requiring stitches, but this benefit is only seen in moms giving birth vaginally for the first time. It is thought that most of the decreased risk of perineal trauma was due to a decrease in the episiotomy rate. In the largest study included in this review (Labrecque et al., 1999), there was an overall episiotomy rate of 38%. In the U.S., 25% of women have an episiotomy during a vaginal birth (Declercq, Sakala et al. 2007), and rates are even lower for some providers.  It is possible that these research findings might not apply to birth settings where episiotomies are extremely rare.

 

Second time moms who use perineal massage will not see any decrease in their risk of tearing, but they may reduce their risk of ongoing perineal pain at 3 months postpartum.

 

So in summary, for first-time moms only:

Perineal massage during pregnancy

Decreased risk of episiotomy

Decreased risk of trauma requiring stitches

If women choose to use perineal massage during pregnancy, there is no consensus on the amount of massage needed to reduce the risk of tearing.

 

Have you learned about perineal massage? Have you tried it or do you plan to? If you have already had a baby, do you feel it helped you?

 

References

Aasheim, V., A. B. Nilsen, et al. (2011). “Perineal techniques during the second stage of labour for reducing perineal trauma.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev(12): CD006672.

Beckmann, M. M. and A. J. Garrett (2006). “Antenatal perineal massage for reducing perineal trauma.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev(1): CD005123.

Byrd, L. M., J. Hobbiss, et al. (2005). “Is it possible to predict or prevent third degree tears?”Colorectal Dis 7(4): 311-318.

Christianson, L. M., V. E. Bovbjerg, et al. (2003). “Risk factors for perineal injury during delivery.” Am J Obstet Gynecol 189(1): 255-260.

Dahlen, H. G., C. S. Homer, et al. (2007). “Perineal outcomes and maternal comfort related to the application of perineal warm packs in the second stage of labor: a randomized controlled trial.” Birth 34(4): 282-290.

Declercq, E. R., C. Sakala, et al. (2007). “Listening to Mothers II: Report of the Second National U.S. Survey of Women’s Childbearing Experiences: Conducted January-February 2006 for Childbirth Connection by Harris Interactive(R) in partnership with Lamaze International.” J Perinat Educ 16(4): 9-14.

Groutz, A., J. Hasson, et al. (2011). “Third- and fourth-degree perineal tears: prevalence and risk factors in the third millennium.” Am J Obstet Gynecol 204(4): 347 e341-344.

Hirayama, F., A. Koyanagi, et al. (2012). “Prevalence and risk factors for third- and fourth-degree perineal lacerations during vaginal delivery: a multi-country study.” BJOG 119(3): 340-347.

Labrecque, M., E. Eason, et al. (1999). “Randomized controlled trial of prevention of perineal trauma by perineal massage during pregnancy.” Am J Obstet Gynecol 180(3 Pt 1): 593-600.

Soong, B. and M. Barnes (2005). “Maternal position at midwife-attended birth and perineal trauma: is there an association?” Birth

32(3): 164-169.

 

 

About Rebecca Dekker
Rebecca Dekker, PhD, RN, APRN, is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at a research-intensive university and author of www.evidencebasedbirth.com. Rebecca’s vision is to promote evidence-based birth practices among consumers and clinicians worldwide. She publishes summaries of birth evidence using a Question and Answer style.

 

Avatar of Cara TerreriAbout Cara Terreri
Cara began working with Lamaze in 2004, two years before becoming a mother. Three kids later, she's a full-fledged healthy birth advocate and the Site Administrator for Giving Birth with Confidence. Most recently Cara began study to become a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and DONA certified doula (learn more about her services at www.SimpleSupportBirth.com). She continues to stand in awe of the power and beauty in pregnancy and birth, and enjoys helping women discover their own power and joy in the journey to motherhood.

Comments

  1. Karen says:

    I did massage with my first and had a small 1st degree tear – but I also gave birth in stirrups with directed pushing. My experience working with women has led me to believe that other factors are more important than perineal massage in preventing tears – specifically, birthing upright, spontaneous pushing, pushing only after mom feels the urge, and hands off the perineum (and especially no “ironing it out.”) Factors during pregnancy include good nutrition, squatting and tailor-sitting, etc. Of course, some of us are genetically predisposed toward more tearing, but I tend to believe that a good proportion of tears are due to the lack of support for normal birth.

  2. Caitlin says:

    Wow, this was very enlightening! I’m expecting baby number 2 and with our first I had a second degree tear and a lot of recovery time, but again I delievered laying on my back with feet being held my the nurse and my husband. I now know that much more is involved in helping reprevent trauma. Thank you for this information!

  3. Avatar of Cara Terreri Cara Terreri says:

    Karen: Thanks for your insight on the topic and for sharing your experience. I agree with you — lack of support for normal birth is the reason for so many birth complications.

    Caitlin: You’re welcome — thanks for your comment. And good luck with baby #2!

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    automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

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