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Pain Relief Options During Birth

Posted on 29/03/2012 in Well Being


Pregnant women have a lot to think about. There are of course the ‘while’ pregnant matters of maternity fashions (such as
maternity dresses and breastfeeding tops that can be comfortably and conveniently worn post-delivery), baby furniture, baby clothing, baby travel systems and baby feeding equipment. Considering each of these areas can be exhausting in itself, but before long every expectant mother starts to think about the inevitable hours -- and possibly even days -- of labour and birth that await them.

As many people realise, childbirth is typically a painful experience. In spite of the pain that is commonly experienced, the good news is a range of pain relief options exist -- some of which are drug-free. A number of women are eager to avoid drugs and medical interventions as much as they possibly can, while others are completely open to the different options available. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and every woman’s experience will be different, but here we take a look at a selection of these options.

Options for drug-free pain relief

Some evidence suggests that by being prepared, much of the pain of birth can be reduced. In fact, it is more the perception of pain being modified that is most effective in reducing anxiety and equipping women with the skills to better cope with labour.

In particular:
  • Being in good physical condition can help to prepare a woman for childbirth. Gentle, regular exercise throughout pregnancy, abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol and consumption of a healthy, balanced diet is important.
  • Understanding the processes and different stages of labour can limit anxiety and antenatal classes can be most helpful in this regard.
  • Breathing techniques can help a woman manage contractions.
  • Support from a partner or other loved one can make a huge difference.
  • Hot showers, massage, hot or cold packs and being active assists many women.
  • Acupuncture and hypnosis are areas in which less evidence exists, but techniques that a number of women have found effective.

TENS: A TENS machine is a small hand-held device that the woman controls and in doing so, stimulates the nerves in her lower back. This machine is used by some women on its own or together with other pain relief methods. No side effects for the mother or baby are known.

Options for medical pain relief

Nitrous oxide:  Better known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen and is provided to the women through a facemask or a tube held in the mouth. While nitrous oxide does not completely alleviate the pain, for many women it makes the pain of contractions slightly less intense.

The main benefits of this form of pain relief is that the woman has control, the drug causes no interference with contractions and does not remain in the woman’s or baby’s body. Less desirable effects can include nausea, vomiting, confusion, a sense of claustrophobia (if a face mask is used) and no pain relief being experienced.

Pethidine:  A strong painkiller, pethidine is most often given by injection and can provide pain relief for two to four hours. Because pethidine can make a person feel sick, it is often the case that anti-nausea medications are given simultaneously.

For the mother, possible problems with use of pethidine include:
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Disorientation
  • Reduced rate of breathing
  • In some cases, no pain relief at all

For the baby, side effects of pethidine may include:
  • Reduced rate of breathing
  • Depression of the sucking reflex and other normal reflexes
  • However, there is some conjecture about the effects of pethidine on babies

Epidural anaesthesia: An epidural involves anaesthetic being injected into the mother’s spinal cord and results in the mother feeling numb from the waist down. An epidural commonly provides effective pain relief during labour for a vaginal delivery or keeps the mother awake and aware as a caesarean section is done.

Side effects and complications of an epidural may include:
  • The woman still experiences some pain
  • A drop in blood pressure, causing faintness and nausea and stress to the baby
  • Muscle weakness in the legs
  • Insertion of a urinary catheter because the lower body is numb
  • The duration of labour lengthening
  • Reduced likelihood of a normal vaginal delivery

A variety of options exist for pain relief during childbirth. It is up to the woman and her support network to make decisions about the best sources of pain relief for her and their possible effects on the baby.

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