Vanderbilt University Medical Center is offering nitrous oxide as a pain management tool for women during childbirth – joining only two other hospitals in the country offering this option. Nitrous oxide, also called “laughing gas,” can be administered quickly, is widely known to rapidly ease pain, and has been proven safe for both mothers and their babies.
“Childbirth is not a one-size-fits-all process,” said Frank Boehm, M.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and vice-chair of the department. “Women deserve to have a wide variety of options available to them. Nitrous oxide is an option that takes the edge off of pain, and I think it may become a popular option for some women who give birth at Vanderbilt.”
The odorless, tasteless gas is inhaled through a mask. For labor, 50 percent nitrous oxide and 50 percent oxygen are blended together by a specialized device. The mixture is then self-administered by the mother through a mask or mouthpiece she controls. This mixture of nitrous oxide mixture is safe for both the mother and baby because it is eliminated from the body through the lungs, rather than through the liver. The 50-50 mix does not cause newborns to be groggy.
“Labor pain is subjective and highly individualized depending on the laboring woman,” said Michelle Collins, M.S.N., a certified nurse-midwife and assistant professor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. “So this is a wonderful way to provide a non-invasive option that provides pain relief for many women, particularly those who do not want an epidural or intravenous narcotics for pain.”
Nitrous oxide has many advantages including a quick response time. Most women experience its effects in less than one minute, and then it dissipates fully within five minutes after stopping use. It can be started and stopped at any point during labor, depending on the mother’s preference.
“A hallmark of using nitrous oxide in a labor environment is that the mother is able to self-administer via the mask,” said Sarah Starr, M.D., an assistant professor of Clinical Anesthesiology who works with Obstetrics patients. “This increases her sense of control over the dosage, over her pain and over herself during labor.”
“We want to offer women meaningful and different options. There is so much patient interest, we are happy to be able to provide this,” she added.
Nitrous oxide is commonly used for pain relief during childbirth in European countries. It was used in the United States in the 1950s, but was later replaced by other options including epidurals. At Vanderbilt, the provider and the patient will decide together if nitrous oxide is an appropriate option. If so, it will be initiated by an anesthesia provider who will teach the patient how to self-administer.
“Many women want to work through their labor and birth without medication or epidural anesthesia, but may find that they still need some sort of pain management to get them through the rough spots in their labor. Nitrous oxide is ideal in those situations,” Collins said.
Recently, VUMC has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of childbirths performed at Vanderbilt University Hospital, with an estimated 3,800 this year.
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