Indiana Paramedics Use Laughing Gas to Treat Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

They say laughter is the best medicine, but an Indiana fire department has taken that cliché a step further by using “laughing gas” to treat emergency patients.

This week paramedics in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers became the first in the state to use nitrous oxide for pain management when a patient suffers a broken bone, sprain or some other injury.  The goal is to reduce the use of prescription fentanyl – a potent opioid – and run the risk of a patient becoming addicted.  Fentanyl is currently used to manage pain in about 10 percent of Fishers’ emergency transports.

“It really comes down to the number of overdoses that we respond to. Fishers is not immune to that problem and we're trying to look at any and all ways that we can prevent people becoming addicted to opioids," Fishers Fire Captain John Mehling told WTTV. “If we can take even a little piece of that out of the care for the patients that we deal with, that might be that one step that keeps them from becoming addicted.”

Fire officials say patients must be alert enough to administer the gas themselves by holding a mask over their face while under the supervision of a paramedic. It takes about 2 to 3 minutes for the nitrous oxide to reduce pain and anxiety.    

“This is an effective and responsible adjustment to the care of our patients without the introduction of opiates into their system when possible,” said Fisher Fire Chief Steven Orusa.

Nitrous oxide has long been used to manage pain during dental procedures and is commonly used in European and Australian ambulances. It’s use by paramedics in the United States is relatively new.

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Laughing gas is also making a comeback in some U.S. hospitals, where it is offered as an alternative to epidurals for labor pain. St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New Jersey has incorporated nitrous oxide into its “Alternative to Opiates” program, along with dry needles, nerve blocks and music therapy. St. Joseph’s has drawn international attention for significantly reducing the use of opioids in its emergency room, but is rated as one of the worst hospitals in the country by patients, who complain of poor pain care and long wait times.

Although nitrous oxide is considered safer than opioids, it has a long history of being abused for its euphoric effects. The gas was first used in “laughing gas parties” 200 years ago in Great Britain and is still used today by recreational drug users. When inhaled without oxygen mixed in, nitrous oxide can cause blood pressure to drop suddenly and lead to fainting and heart attacks.

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.