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Pharmaceutical methods of pain relief in labour - pethidine, opiates and epidural anaesthesia

Updated on August 4, 2012

Pain relief in labour

This really is a subject you want to be thinking about before labour starts, because labour is a time for shutting off the neo cortex, or thinking brain, so that you can allow your instinctive processes to come forward. Of course when you’re actually in labour you may feel very differently about decisions made beforehand, and want to abandon your plans and change direction completely. Even if this happens, it will be beneficial to you to have thought all this out with a clear head, and whilst you are in a position to discuss it with your care givers; your partner, midwife, doula, mother, sister or friends. This is because what ever happens, we always feel better about things if we feel we’ve explored all the avenues and made informed choices.

The use of opiates by injection or in Epidurals can affect the bonding between mother and baby
The use of opiates by injection or in Epidurals can affect the bonding between mother and baby | Source

What are the various drugs?

What choices might you be offered during a hospital birth? There are many varied ways of making the challenge of childbirth bearable, but in hospital the pharmacology is there, and can quickly be offered, sometimes even before it the labouring mother has indicated any need for it.

  1. Epidural block, containing local anaesthetics and sometimes opiates like fentanyl
  2. spinal block,
  3. pethidine, diamorphine, butorphanol, fentanyl, and other opiate derivatives in injection or pump,
  4. entonox (gas and air, laughing gas) which is inhaled from a cannister, are the most common drugs on the labour ward for pain relief.

Undisturbed birth

These are the main choices, and epidural is one of the most popular because it is perceived that it doesn’t affect a woman’s level of consciousness and she can laugh and joke with the staff as though nothing was happening to her.

But is this ok? A woman in labour isn’t meant to be in a ’normal’ level consciousness…nature meant her to be in labour-land, giving her natural flow of birth hormones the very best chance of working properly.

An epidural is achieved by the anaesthetist passing a small tube through a needle into the epidural space in the spinal column. Anaesthetic is pumped into this tube, and bathes the nerves which attach to the spinal cord. The nerves from the womb join the spine at the point where the epidural is sited, and this has the effect of blocking the pain messages heading from there to the brain. The anaesthetic can be topped up when necessary.

And it is popularly thought that apart from a higher chance of instrumental delivery due to numb vaginal muscles, there aren’t any side-effects, or effects on the baby, or risks. Is this assumption correct?

Side-effects of epidural anaesthesia

Firstly you must be prepared that the epidural may only be partly effective, and leave a ’window’ of pain. Sometimes epidurals increase the length of labour, and affect the mother’s perception of it as she is confined to bed, with an additional intravenous catheter in case the epidural causes a sudden drop in blood pressure. Most women will need a urinary catheter as they lose the sensation of needing to empty their bladder.

The inhibitive effect epidural drugs have on the hormones in labour is an important consideration, as oxytocin, the hormone of bonding and love, is at its highest straight after birth when the mother is bonding with her newborn. Studies have shown (Rahm, Hallegren et al 2002) that with an epidural in place, oxytocin levels in labour are diminished, but also at birth the levels are lowered.

Epidurals have been shown to inhibit the physiological pattern of labour where it culminates in a short series of strong contractions to expel the baby. Instead, she may have to use her own effort to push, with the added disadvantage of being on her back unable to stand because she can’t feel her legs. This can result in more tearing and prolonged second stage, and results in an increased number of instrumental deliveries

The Epidural Book: A Woman's Guide to Anesthesia for Childbirth
The Epidural Book: A Woman's Guide to Anesthesia for Childbirth

This book will be released in early November 2012 so may not be in time for everyone! It is written by an experienced anaesthetist and covers all aspects of epidural and spinal anaesthesia for childbirth, explaining who will be carrying out the procedure, and what the side effects might be.

Easing Labor Pain: The Complete Guide to a More Comfortable and Rewarding Birth
Easing Labor Pain: The Complete Guide to a More Comfortable and Rewarding Birth

This book tackles the whole issue of pain relief in labour by looking at the subject as a whole and properly preparing women and arming them with knowledge is a great way of easing the fear and tension that can make labour pain feel a whole lot worse. Contains lots of ideas for comfort measures during labour

Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor's Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor's Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices

Written by Dr Sarah Buckley and Ina May Gaskin, two women committed to improving the state of childbirth for mothers and babies the world over. This book comes from a background of lots of childbirth experience and a wealth of scientfic evidence on the subject of birth and mothering. Two very wise women have contributed to this book.


Epidural drugs can reach the foetus via the mother’s bloodstream at equal and sometimes greater levels. (Brinsmead 1987; Fernando, Bonello et al 1997)

Sometimes an epidural is indicated and is a necessary intervention and the birth is a satisfying experience for the mother who goes on to bond with her infant happily. The above studies show, however, that epidural anaesthetic is not without risk, or side-effects, which should be discussed by attending physicians and midwives and considered very carefully by the mother before labour starts. Birth attendants can help by supporting the mother intensively during her most challenging times and have a number of natural methods of pain relief at their fingertips. There can be a number of reasons why care-givers quickly suggest an epidural rather than take the time to explore other methods; sometimes they are uncomfortable with supporting a mother who is not in a sociable frame of mind and who might be yelling, grunting or crying. This is the time to remember, that labour, if painful, is pain with a purpose rather as opposed to suffering, as doula Penny Simkin has pointed out.

Pain Versus Suffering

Spinal block, how is it different from an epidural?

A spinal block is given into the same area of the back as an epidural block, but is given as a one-off anaesthetic for a caesarean section or instrumental delivery.

It is not administered via tube like epidurals, but is one injection into the back. It can result in headaches, sickness and difficulty with urinating afterwards, but it is quick and effective and allows the mother to stay awake during these procedures, and meet her baby immediately following birth.

Did your epidural affect the course of your labour?

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Opiates for pain relief in labour

Opiates like diamorphine, pethidine, nalbuphine, butorphanol, fentanyl, and meperidine, are anaesthetic drugs. Pethidine and morphine are most commonly used in the United Kingdom, and are injected into the mother’s thigh or buttock muscle.

These drugs can be given by a midwife during a home-delivery. They can be given more than once, although it is worth bearing in mind that the narcotic (sleep-inducing) side-effect in the mother can be cumulative, rendering her very sleepy following a labour where she has had several doses of the drug. This, and similar effects on the baby, means that opiates will interfere with the natural processes of bonding following birth. Where mothers have relied on their own painkilling beta-endorphines secreted by the brain, the time when they first hold their baby straight after birth, is one of great sensitivity to the newborn, who is also in a state of heightened sensitivity. This is how natural bonding happens, as mother and baby look into each other’s eyes and discover one another’s skin and smell. Opiates have been found to inhibit natural production of beta-endorphines and oxytocin as well. (Thomas, Fletcher et al. 1982)

The drug takes a while to work, and lasts up to three hours, and it crosses the placenta and makes baby very sleepy after the birth. It is therefore very important that opiates are not administered to a mother who is close to birthing.

As well as causing drowsiness, opiates often have the side-effect of causing nausea, so are given in combination with anti-emetic medication.

would you opt for opiate pain relief again?

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Thank-you to Dr Sarah Buckley's article 'Ecstatic Birth - Nature's hormonal blueprint for labor' for the study references.

  1. Rahm, V. A., A. Hallegren, et al (2002) "Plasma oxytocin levels in women during labour with or without epidural analgesia: a prospective study." Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand 81 (11): 1033-9
  2. Brinsmead, M. (1987). "Fetal and neonatal effects of drugs administered in labour." Med J Aust 146 (9): 481-6
  3. Fernando, R., E. Bonello, et al. (1997). "Neonatal welfare and placental transfer of fentanyl and bupivacaine during ambulatory combined spinal epidural analgesia for labour." Anaesthesia 52 (6): 517-24
  4. Thomas, T. A., J. E. Fletcher, et al. (1982). "Influence of medication, pain and progress in labour on plasma beta-endorphin-like immunoreactivity." Br J Anaesth 54 (4): 401-8


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    • Mrs Jil Manning profile image

      Mrs Jil Manning 4 years ago from Sussex, England

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment, mizjo!

    • mizjo profile image

      mizjo 4 years ago from New York City, NY

      I remember only ever having had Pethidine once, and it didn't help. All my labours were so short (longest 4 hours) that there was no time to get to that stage of needing analgesics

      You've written a very detailed, useful article, and thanks very much for sharing your knowledge.