There are several options for pain relief in labour. This section covers the main medical options.
Antenatal classes help prepare women for what to expect in labour, and can make the experience more comfortable and less scary. Several things can improve the symptoms without medications:
- Understanding what to expect
- Having good support
- Being in a relaxed environment
- Changing position to stay comfortable
- Controlled breathing
- Water births may help some women
- TENS machines may be useful in the early stages of labour
Paracetamol is frequently used in early labour. Codeine may be added for additional effect. NSAIDs are avoided.
Gas and Air (Entonox)
Gas and air contains a mixture of 50% nitrous oxide and 50% oxygen. This is used during contractions for short term pain relief. The woman takes deep breaths using a mouthpiece at the start of a contraction, then stops using it as the contraction eases. It can cause lightheadedness, nausea or sleepiness.
Intramuscular Pethidine or Diamorphine
Pethidine and diamorphine are opioid medications, usually given by intramuscular injection. They may help with anxiety and distress. They may cause drowsiness or nausea in the mother, and can cause respiratory depression in the neonate if given too close to birth. The effect on the baby may make the first feed more difficult.
Patient Controlled Analgesia
Patients may be offered the option of patient-controlled intravenous remifentanil. This involves the patient pressing a button at the start of a contraction to administer a bolus of this short-acting opiate medication.
Patient-controlled analgesia requires careful monitoring. There needs to be input from an anaesthetist, and facilities in place if adverse events occur. This includes access to naloxone for respiratory depression, and atropine for bradycardia.
An epidural involves inserting a small tube (catheter) into the epidural space in the lower back. This is outside the dura mater, separate from the spinal cord and CSF. Local anaesthetic medications are infused through the catheter into the epidural space, where they diffuse to the surrounding tissues and through to the spinal cord, where they have an analgesic effect. This offers good pain relief during labour. Anaesthetic options are levobupivacaine or bupivacaine, usually mixed with fentanyl.
- Headache after insertion
- Motor weakness in the legs
- Nerve damage
- Prolonged second stage
- Increased probability of instrumental delivery
Women need urgent anaesthetic review if they develop significant motor weakness (unable to straight leg raise). The catheter may be incorrectly sited in the subarachnoid space (within the spinal cord), rather than the epidural space.
Last updated September 2020