Laughing Gas for Labor Pain

Nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ as it is more commonly known, may be coming back into favor as a pain reliever for mothers in labor. It was popular earlier and had been in use since the mid-1800s but fell out of favor when stronger drugs became available after the 1950’s. The growing interest in low-intervention deliveries without resorting to potent pain medications is leading to the re-emergence of laughing gas as an option.

Epidural anesthesia became prevalent in the 1970’s, giving women the possibility of a pain-free labor while awake.  Epidurals are injections that are administered near the spinal cord that block off feeling below the waist. While they deaden pain more comprehensively than laughing gas, they make it more difficult to move around and can prolong labor. Laughing gas on the other hand lessens the pain of contractions by creating a sense of relaxation or euphoria and is even more effective when combined with breathing techniques. It is the medication of choice for many women who want more control over their bodies when giving birth which epidurals do not offer.  It also is safe in small doses, leaves the body in seconds unlike stronger pain killers, and is consequently less risky for the baby.

Another major advantage of laughing gas is that it is very much cheaper to administer than epidurals with cost savings of hundreds or sometimes even thousands of dollars. Porter Instruments, manufacturers of the Nitronox system, say the equipment would cost a hospital just under $5,000.  It is also easier to administer with no requirement for an anesthesiologist to be present Trained staff including midwives can give it to patients.

There were only a few hospital and birth centers in the US offering nitrous oxide to women in labor up until 2011. Nowadays there are nearly three hundred according to Porter Instruments. Nitrous oxide has regularly been used in Europe for decades unlike the US.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists reviewed research on nitrous oxide in 2011 and came to the conclusion that more rigorous studies were needed in order to assess its safety and effectiveness. They did however acknowledge that its longstanding use in Europe had a good track record which suggested good safety outcomes for both mother and child.