You don't have to take pain medication when you're giving birth, but some women choose this option. Whether or not you decide that pain medication is right for you, it's important to be educated about the different options available and their side effects. Review these quick facts about the different types of medications used to ease labor pain and be aware of possible side effects.
What they do: Opiod analgesics like Demerol act on the whole nervous system, rather than on any particular area. Analgesics don't completely erase pain, but they can lessen its intensity.
How they're given: They're usually given as a shot into a muscle or through an IV. Some can be self-administered, wherein you control the amount of medication you receive by pushing a button attached to the IV tube. You'll generally respond to the drug within 15-30 minutes.
What they do: Local anesthetics relieve pain by numbing or reducing sensation in a small area. They ease the pain of delivery, but they don't lessen the pain of contractions.
How they're given: Local anesthetics are generally injected around the pudendal nerves inside the vagina. You'll usually respond in about two to three minutes and the effects of the drug may last one hour.
What it does: An epidural numbs sensation from the waist down -- how much depends on the drug and dosage used. It eases the pain of uterine contractions and pain in the vagina as the baby is being delivered. You'll be awake and alert. During a long labor it can prevent you from becoming exhausted or distressed.
How it's given: An epidural is administered either as a single injection or a continuous flow. You'll be asked to sit or lie on your side for about 10 minutes while it's injected into a small space around your spinal cord in your lower back. You'll respond to the drug in about 10-20 minutes.
What it does: A spinal block numbs the lower half of your body, and works more quickly than an epidural. It provides relief from pain, and is effective in small doses.
When it's used: It's best suited for pain relief during delivery -- not labor -- because it's usually only given once and the effects don't last long. It's most often used when the mother is too tired to push. A spinal block is frequently used for a cesarean birth, or if forceps or vacuum extraction are necessary.
How it's given: A spinal block is administered as a single injection into your spinal fluid while you're lying on your side. A thin needle is inserted in the same location of your back as the epidural. Once the spinal anesthetic is injected, the onset of numbness is quite rapid.
What it does: A relatively new technique, the "walking epidural" blocks pain nerves but not motor nerves. It provides the rapid pain relief of a spinal block and the continuous relief of an epidural. It works fast -- pain subsides within two minutes -- and in some hospitals, you can regulate your own dosage.
When it's used: A walking epidural is administered similarly to an epidural, and lasts as long as baby's delivery, supplying a continuous infusion of medication as needed.
How it's given: It's usually administered as a two-injection procedure, the first injection being about half the usual epidural dose. Further injections are given only as needed, reducing the total amount of drug used.
What it does: General anesthetics are medications that make you lose consciousness. When used during childbirth, the mother will not be awake or feel any pain during delivery.
How it's given: These drugs are given through a face mask or injected through an IV line. Once the drug is given, it works very quickly.
Sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG); American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA); American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA)
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.