Each woman’s labor is unique. Pain depends on many factors, such as the size and position of the baby and the strength of contractions. Some women take classes to learn breathing and relaxation techniques to help cope with pain during childbirth. Others may find it helpful to use these techniques along with pain medications. The decision to use medical pain relief is entirely yours and there is no “right” or “wrong” choice. During prenatal visits, talk with your doctor about your labor and delivery options. To make your preferences clear, create a written birth plan bearing in mind that labor and delivery are unpredictable, so it is best to be flexible with your choices.
There are two types of pain-relieving drugs that can be used during labor and delivery – – analgesics and anesthesia. Analgesics relieve pain without total loss of feeling or muscle movement. They do not always stop pain completely, but they do lessen it dramatically. Anesthesia blocks all feeling, including pain, and some cause you to lose consciousness. Some women need little or no pain relief, and others find that pain relief gives them better control over their labor and delivery. Talk with your doctor about your options.
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Natural ways to relieve discomfort during labor include:
- Relaxation and breathing techniques taught in childbirth class
- Having your partner massage or firmly press on your lower back
- Changing positions often
- Taking a shower or bath, if permitted
- Placing an ice pack on your back
- Using tennis balls for massage
Regional anesthesia tends to be the most effective method of pain relief during labor and causes few side effects. Types of regional anesthesia used to decrease labor pain include epidural anesthesia, spinal blocks, and combined spinal-epidural blocks.
Epidural anesthesia, sometimes called an epidural block, causes some loss of feeling in the lower areas of your body, yet you remain awake and alert. An epidural block may be given soon after your contractions start, or later as your labor progresses. Your doctor will determine the proper time to give the epidural. Pain relief will begin within 10 to 20 minutes after the medication has been injected.
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A spinal block, like an epidural block, is an injection in the lower back. While you sit or lie on your side in bed, a small amount of medication is injected into the spinal fluid to numb the lower half of the body. A spinal block brings good relief from pain and starts working fast, but it lasts only an hour or two. A spinal block usually is given only once during labor, so it is best suited for pain relief during delivery.
A combined spinal-epidural block has the benefits of both types of pain relief. The spinal part helps provide pain relief right away. Drugs given through the epidural provide pain relief throughout labor.
Unlike analgesics or regional anesthesia, general anesthetics are medications that make you lose consciousness. If you have general anesthesia, you are not awake and you feel no pain. General anesthesia often is used when a regional block anesthetic is not possible or is not the best choice for medical or other reasons. It can be started quickly and causes a rapid loss of consciousness; therefore, it is often used when an urgent cesarean delivery is needed.
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