Birth in America
Last year, more than four million babies were born in the U.S. During labor the cervix dilates (widens) and the muscles of the uterus contract in preparation for birth. As the birth gets closer, the contractions become stronger and closer together. For most women, the natural labor process is a painful one (although the degree of pain varies from person to person and even from one pregnancy to another).
Women seeking pain relief during childbirth have several medical options. A common type of anesthesia is an epidural block. An anesthetic drug is injected into the space outside the spinal cord (called the epidural space). The drug blocks the pain signals from the sensory nerves in the lower body.
In many cases, a catheter is inserted into the spinal space to allow doctors to administer the anesthesia as needed. Complications from epidural anesthesia are rare, and can include a severe headache and breathing problems.
A spinal block is an injection of an anesthetic drug into the spinal fluid to numb the lower half of the body. It provides fast relief from pain, but only lasts an hour or two. General anesthesia, which puts women to sleep, is usually reserved for cesarean birth and emergencies because it can also make the baby sleepy and slow the child's breathing and reflexes.
Local anesthetics are useful to numb specific areas of the body, such as before an episiotomy or placing stitches to repair tears. During the early stages of labor, intravenous pain medications, such as morphine, can help take the edge off some of the pain.
Other Pain Relief Options
There are many other methods for pain control during labor. Childbirth education classes, such as the Lamaze™ method, can help reduce anxiety and fear – factors that may increase tension and pain for a woman in labor. The classes also teach relaxation and focused breathing during painful contractions.
Some other techniques to reduce the discomfort of labor pain include massage, application of heat or cold on the back, and distraction (such as watching television or listening to music).
Some women do well without medication for labor pain, while others find they need a combination of techniques. Health experts say there are very few contraindications for medication during labor.
The bottom line is that women should be in charge of their pain management decisions and not feel guilty about which method they choose for pain control during labor and birth.
For general information on anesthesia for childbirth: