I am a distance runner and a mom. Therefore, I am no stranger to swollen feet and ankles. In fact, at this point in my 30s, it's just a part of my daily existence. Like many pregnant moms, a long soak after being on my feet was my go-to remedy for the swelling and pain I often experienced. My favorite bath includes a healthy pour of lavender-scented epsom salts and a romance novel. It's relaxing and soothing, does epsom salt help with pregnancy swelling?
For a long time, there wasn't a lot of scientific information available as to why the epsom salts seem to help alleviate swelling and pain in the feet during pregnancy, other than anecdotal observation. However, because it was so ubiquitous, and so many patients achieved some measure of relief from it, doctors like those from the Cleveland Clinic began prescribing it as a regular part of therapy. Podiatric physician and surgeon Georgeanne Botek, DPM, at the Cleveland Clinic wrote on their blog that “when it comes to swelling, it’s about management and getting through the day. There’s nothing that’s necessarily curative," but that epsom salts do seem to help. Now, thanks to recent research, we know that it's possible that the magnesium in the salt makes its way into the system through a transdermal delivery in the bath.
How does epsom salt reduce swelling and pain through this transdermal application? Let's get science-y for a hot minute and look at what transdermal delivery is, and why it works so well with your bath. Transdermal is a pharmaceutical term that just means "transferred through the dermis" or skin, like your birth control or nicotine patch. It absorbs into either the sweat glands, pores on your skin, or through the tiny hair follicles, and treats you. In the case of the nicotine and birth control patch, it's designed to release a controlled amount of medication into your system over a prolonged period of time, noted National Biotechnology. When it comes to epsom salts, calamine lotion, and wrinkle cream, it's mainly focusing on only the affected tissue.
Epsom salts are rich in magnesium, which is scientifically proven to be a rocking tool in the anti-swelling arsenal. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, magnesium expert and Medical Advisory Board member of the nonprofit Nutritional Magnesium Association told PR Newswire that "at the cellular level, magnesium reduces inflammation. In the animal model used, magnesium deficiency is created when an inflammatory condition is produced. Increasing magnesium intake decreases the inflammation."
Why it's thought to work so well and so quickly in your bath is because the saltwater supposedly acts as a carrier for the magnesium into the tissue, thus reducing the swelling, noted Nutrients.
I will admit, the hard science behind the use of epsom salts is questionable at best as is pointed out in Nutrients. However, the initial studies are showing that there is enough evidence available that the practice should warrant further study, because swollen, achy ankles aren't the only good use of topical magnesium application. The journal noted that magnesium is useful for everything from cardiac and muscle health to premenstrual symptoms. If we could rub it on instead of ingesting it, we'd be less likely to end up with oral magnesium's biggest side effect — diarrhea. (Because when you're pregnant, you suffer enough indignities, you don't need to add one more.)
The thing is, while the science is still catching up, everyone from your physical therapist to your great aunt Hildegard will recommend an epsom salt bath to you. And even if it is the placebo effect, it's a darned relaxing experience, and that alone is worth its salt. Just a note of caution: even though very recent studies suggest that hot baths might be safe during pregnancy, this wasn't always accepted practice. Talk to your OB-GYN before you start a bath therapy to see what temperature they recommend.