Pain Relief Options for Labor and Childbirth

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Labor and Delivery: Pain control options introduction

Women respond differently to the pain of labor and delivery. Pain control options during labor and delivery are a personal choice, and a birth plan can typically be individualized according to a woman's wishes, but the circumstances of labor and individual medical conditions can sometimes determine what pain relief options are indicated. Available medical pain control options range from pain control medications to nerve blocks and anesthesia. It is helpful to discuss your preferences with your health care professional in advance so that your questions can be fully answered and your wishes can be expressed. Of course, during your labor, your health care professional will assess your progress and determine how you are feeling. It's fine to change your mind about pain relief options even during labor. Consequently, understanding the various options for pain control will help you make an informed decision.

This article describes the most commonly used medical pain relief interventions used for labor and delivery. All of these options have been shown to be safe for both mother and baby.

Regional anesthesia: Spinal and epidural blocks

Spinal and epidural anesthesia are popular choices for pain control because they do not affect your ability to push during labor. In both of these procedures, medications are injected near the nerves of the low back to block pain signals from your lower body, even though you remain awake and labor is usually not significantly slowed. An anesthesiologist typically administers this type of anesthesia. A spinal block involves injection of the medication right around the spinal nerves, while in an epidural block the medicine is injected into the sac that surrounds the spinal cord. Before the medications are injected, a numbing medication is given in the low back. Both these options can also be used for a Cesarean delivery.

Because many women are not able to urinate and others are affected by anesthesia, you may require a urinary catheter with spinal or epidural anesthesia. An uncommon complication is experiencing a headache after the anesthesia wears off. Both types of anesthesia may reduce your blood pressure somewhat, although this is more common with a spinal block.

A spinal block requires less medication and is typically given one time, while a catheter may be inserted into the epidural space for repeated delivery of anesthetic medications.

An epidural block takes about 10 to 20 minutes to work, and because a catheter is inserted into the epidural space, the effects can last as long as needed due to the ability to inject more medication. A spinal block begins working immediately, but its effects last only about 2 ½ hours. It is possible to have a combination of spinal and epidural anesthesia.

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