Is Laughing Gas the Best Medicine for Labor Pain?  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A century ago, nitrous oxide – more commonly known as laughing gas -- was widely used in American hospitals to relieve labor pain during childbirth. But laughing gas fell out of favor as more Caesarean sections were performed and women opted more often for epidural injections for pain relief.  

Nitrous oxide is still commonly used in Europe and Australia to manage labor pain, and is beginning to regain popularity in the U.S. The inhaled anesthetic gas helps reduce anxiety and makes patients less aware of their pain, but does not eliminate it. 

“Nitrous oxide is easy for patients to use, relatively inexpensive, and will attract more patients looking for a birthing center, or more homelike type of delivery experience,” says Barbara Orlando, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.

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Orlando and her colleagues reviewed the medical records of nearly 2,000 women who used nitrous oxide during labor in five large university hospitals.

Many gave laughing gas high marks for pain control. The mean patient satisfaction rate for nitrous oxide was 7.4 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Their babies also had no adverse health effects.

Curiously, however, nearly 70 percent of the women who tried nitrous oxide switched to an epidural or another pain management method.  

“The high patient satisfaction rate and safety profile that we found should motivate other institutions nationwide to offer nitrous oxide as a pain management option to women in labor,” said Orlando, who presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).

“Although nitrous oxide did not prevent women in labor from requesting other pain management options like an epidural, we received positive feedback from patients who said they like laughing gas as an option to manage their pain.”

Epidurals injections allow mothers to stay awake and alert throughout delivery. But they are not without risks. A poorly placed needle can damage the spine permanently, as Dawn Gonzalez discovered a few years ago.

“The blind insertion of the epidural during birth is basically playing roulette for spinal damage. Normally birthing mothers are told the only side effect possible during epidurals is a spinal headache that lasts a few days,” said Gonzalez, who developed adhesive arachnoiditis, a chronic and disabling inflammation of her spinal nerves.  

The ASA has defended the use of epidurals, calling them “one of the most effective, safest and widely used forms of pain management for women in labor.”

In a large study of over a quarter million epidurals, the risk of complications was found to be low. An “unrecognized spinal catheter” – what Dawn Gonzalez experienced – occured in only one of every 15,435 deliveries. She thinks there are better odds and safer alternatives.

“Laughing gas, Lamaze, hypnotism, meditation, water birthing and even some medications are the absolute safest and most effective forms of labor pain relief. Every woman deserves to know that when she opts for any kind of invasive spinal anesthesia, the risks are very grave and by far much more common than anybody realizes,” Gonzalez said.

Studies Promote Epidurals Without Explaining Risks

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two recent studies presented at a meeting of anesthesiologists are promoting the benefits of epidurals to relieve pain during child birth. But a woman whose spinal cord was permanently damaged by an epidural says new mothers need to be told more about the risks involved.

First, about those studies.

A study of over 200 women presented at the annual meeting American Society of Anesthesiologists found that epidurals – in addition to relieving labor pain – also appear to lower the risk of postpartum depression for new mothers.

"Labor pain matters more than just for the birth experience. It may be psychologically harmful for some women and play a significant role in the development of postpartum depression," said Grace Lim, MD, director of obstetric anesthesiology at Magee Women's Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"We found that certain women who experience good pain relief from epidural analgesia are less likely to exhibit depressive symptoms in the postpartum period."

The second study found that women who chose nitrous oxide – laughing gas – to manage labor pain get only limited relief. And a majority wind up getting an epidural anyway once the pain starts.

"Nitrous oxide is gaining interest among expectant mothers as an option to manage labor pain and is becoming more widely available in the United States," said Caitlin Sutton, MD, an obstetric anesthesiology fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine. "However, we found that for the majority of patients, nitrous oxide does not prevent them from requesting an epidural. While nitrous oxide may be somewhat helpful, but epidural anesthesia remains the most effective method for managing labor pain."

Epidurals are effective at relieving pain, but how safe are they?

“By far the gas is safest form of pain relief for women during labor, along with other non-invasive methods,” says Dawn Gonzalez, whose spinal cord was accidentally punctured by an epidural needle during childbirth. “Epidural anesthesia is the most popular form of anesthesia during labor, but women are rarely warned about the long term, devastating effects and consequences that some women will encounter.”

The injury to Gonzalez’s spine during the botched epidural led to the development of adhesive arachnoiditis, a chronic inflammation that caused scar tissue to form and adhere to the nerves in her spine. She now suffers from severe chronic pain and is disabled. Gonzalez says the pain she experiences today is far worse than the temporary labor pain she would have experienced without an epidural.

“The blind insertion of the epidural during birth is basically playing roulette for spinal damage. Normally birthing mothers are told the only side effect possible during epidurals is a spinal headache that lasts a few days. True informed consent is missing from the equation,” says Gonzalez.

“I often wish I could go back and decline the epidural because arachnoiditis has completely turned my life and that of my family upside down. I had so many dreams for the future with my children, and there is so much I miss out on and will never reach due to being injured during my epidural.”

The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) has long defended the use of epidurals, calling the risk of complications a “myth.” The ASA has called the procedure “one of the most effective, safest and widely used forms of pain management for women in labor.”

A study of over a quarter million epidurals by the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology also found the risk of complications to be low. An “unrecognized spinal catheter” – what Dawn Gonzalez experienced – occurred in about one in 15,435 deliveries.

She thinks there are better and safer alternatives.

“Laughing gas, Lamaze, hypnotism, meditation, water birthing and even some medications are the absolute safest and most effective forms of labor pain relief. Every woman deserves to know that when she opts for any kind of invasive spinal anesthesia, the risks are very grave and by far much more common than anybody realizes,” Gonzalez says. “We have a tendency to think it will ‘never happen to me,’ but you do take very serious risks for yourself and your child when opting for an obstetric epidural.”

One hundred years ago, laughing gas was widely used in hospitals to relieve pain during childbirth, but it fell out of favor as more Caesarean sections were performed and women needed more pain relief.  Nitrous oxide helps reduce anxiety and makes patients less aware of pain, but it does not eliminate it. 

In the laughing gas study of nearly 4,700 women who gave birth vaginally at a U.S. obstetric center, only 148 patients chose to use nitrous oxide. Nearly two out of three wound up getting an epidural once labor began.