Labor Pain-Relief Primer

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dealing with labor pains

Understanding Drug Options

Whether you're determined to have a drug-free delivery or want an epidural the moment you feel a twinge, you should understand your drug choices before heading to the hospital. "After all, you can't tell ahead of time how you'll tolerate labor pain," says Frank Witter, M.D., director of labor and delivery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore.

There are two main categories of pain relief — regional blocks and opioid analgesics. Regional blocks, such as epidurals, spinals, or combined spinal-epidurals (CSE), are injected into your lower back to deliver pain relief right where you need it: your uterus and vagina. They work by stopping pain impulses from traveling up your spinal cord. Opioid analgesics, such as Demerol, are narcotics that are injected into a muscle or run through an IV into a vein. They dull your senses and decrease your brain's ability to perceive pain throughout your body.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, regional blocks are preferable because they allow the mother to remain more alert and participate in the labor. (Opioid analgesics can cause sleepiness.) However, some obstetricians and midwives choose opioids because they are easier to administer and do not require the services of an anesthesiologist.

The kind of pain relief you're offered may depend on the hospital and region where you are delivering. Doctors at large teaching hospitals tend to keep abreast of the latest pain-relief options, while doctors in small hospitals may use older techniques. Similarly, in big urban hospitals, teams of anesthesiologists are available 24 hours a day, while in rural facilities, laboring women may have to wait for the on-call anesthesiologist to be summoned from home. In the latter case, "a woman may be given an opioid analgesic to tide her over until the anesthesiologist arrives at the hospital," explains David Birnbach, M.D., chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists' committee on obstetrical anesthesia. "Once it wears off, he can safely administer a regional block." Use our chart to educate yourself; then discuss your options with your doctor. Once labor starts, however, be ready for anything — and don't judge your delivery on whether or not you took medication. "The real success," Dr. Witter says, "is delivering a beautiful child."

Epidural

How It\’s Given

A catheter is inserted into the space between the sheath surrounding the spinal cord and the vertebrae of the spine, and a continuous infusion of drugs is delivered, numbing the lower body.

What It Does

Relief begins after about 15 minutes. Alleviates pain in the pelvic area to a varying degree, depending on the concentration of anesthetic.

Things to Consider

Spinal Analgesia (also called \”intrathecal analgesia\”)

How It\’s Given

Drugs are delivered directly into the spinal fluid through a needle that's much smaller than those used to insert an epidural catheter.

What It Does

Pain relief to the pelvic area begins immediately. However, the injection lasts only one to two hours and may have to be repeated if labor is prolonged.

Things to Consider

Combined Spinal Epidural (CSE)

How It\’s Given

Drugs are both injected into the spinal fluid and delivered by catheter to the space between the sheath surrounding the spinal cord and the vertebrae.

What It Does

The spinal immediately blocks pain and lasts for an hour or two, while the epidural kicks in after an hour and can provide relief throughout labor.

Things to Consider

Opioid Analgesics

How It\’s Given

A drug is injected into a muscle or run through an IV into a vein. Injected shots must be repeated every hour or so.

What It Does

Takes the edge off pain but does not alleviate it as well as a regional block would. (Still, some women find this method less frightening than a needle in the back).

Things to Consider

Copyright © 2002 Alice Lesch Kelly. Reprinted with permission from the September 2002 issue of Parents magazine; 9/02

Parents Magazine

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