You’re having a baby! You’re likely excited and no doubt nervous about several things — including the hard work and pain of labor and giving birth. Fortunately, there are many ways to ease labor pain and help you relax, including medications and breathing techniques.
There are many ways to ease labor pain and help you relax, including medications and breathing techniques.
Every woman’s pain during labor is different. Talking with your health care providers, including your physician anesthesiologist, will help you decide which pain management methods will help you have the best possible labor and delivery experience. You may decide to use no medication, or you might choose from different types and levels of medications. Depending on how your labor progresses, you may choose to change your pain management plan or use a combination of methods. Whatever you decide, your physician anesthesiologist is available to help you.
Here are some of the most common options for managing labor pain:
- Epidural: This is the most common type of pain relief used during labor. If you choose to have an epidural, a physician anesthesiologist will insert a needle and a tiny tube, called a catheter, in the lower part of your back. An epidural numbs only the lower part of your body below your belly button and allows you to be awake and alert throughout labor, as well as to feel pressure. You will be able to push when it’s time to give birth to your baby. It can take about 15 minutes for the pain medication to work, and you can continue to receive it as needed. Epidurals are very safe; however, as with all medications and medical procedures, there are some potential side effects to be aware of.
- Decrease in blood pressure – The medication may lower your blood pressure, which may slow your baby’s heart rate. To make this less likely, you will be given extra fluids through a tube in your arm (IV line) and may need to lie on your side. Sometimes, your physician anesthesiologist will give you a medication to maintain your lower blood pressure.
- Sore back – Your lower back may be sore where the needle was inserted to deliver the medication. This soreness should last no more than a few days.
- Headache – On rare occasions, the needle pierces the covering of the spinal cord, which can cause a headache that may last for a few days if left untreated.
Women sometimes ask if an epidural can slow labor or lead to a cesarean delivery, also known as a C-section. There is no evidence that it does either.
- Spinal block: This can be used alone or in combination with an epidural, which is referred to as a combined spinal epidural (CSE). For this, a physician anesthesiologist provides medication through a needle inserted in the lower back into the spinal canal. The relief from pain is immediate and lasts from an hour and a half to three hours. You will be numb from your abdomen to your legs and feel no pain. A spinal block can be used for vaginal childbirth as well as for a planned C-section.
- Analgesics: These pain medications are delivered through an IV line into a vein or injected into a muscle. Analgesics can include both opioid and non-opioid medications and temporarily relieve pain but do not eliminate it.
- General anesthesia: This is the only type of pain medication used during labor that makes you lose consciousness. With general anesthesia, you will not be awake for the birth of your baby. It works quickly and is typically used only if you need an emergency C-section or have another urgent medical problem (such as bleeding).
- Additional and complementary pain management methods: There are also ways to help you cope with labor pain without medication, or in combination with medication:
- Massage – Have your partner massage your back or feet.
- Breathing – Deep, slow breaths and grunting are two examples of the many different ways to breathe through the pain of a contraction.
- Visualization – You may find it helpful to picture yourself somewhere enjoyable, such as on a beach or walking through a forest.
- Water – Soak in a tub or take a shower to soothe some tension.
Pregnant women sometimes ask about nitrous oxide, also referred to as laughing gas, for labor pain relief. Physician anesthesiologists don’t recommend nitrous oxide because of its many side effects, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness and possible breathing problems, and because there is limited research on how safe it is for your baby.
Physician anesthesiologists are committed to patient safety and high-quality care, and have the necessary knowledge to understand and treat the entire human body.