Laughing Gas Might Not Nix Your Labor Pain, According to New Study

According to new research, women who opt for laughing gas during labor will likely need an epidural to help manage the pain.

Laughing Gas for Labor Pains Tyler Olson/Shutterstock
Have you considered requesting a hit of laughing gas to get you through labor? If so, you'll want to read this: The majority of women who choose this course of pain management wind up getting an epidural as well. The reason behind this? While nitrous oxide might put you in a good mood and help you get through a tough labor, it likely won't wipe out much of your pain—at least not the way an epidural will.

Research to support this was presented at the ANESTHESIOLOGY 2016 meeting: Scientists involved with the study found that on average, patients report the same pain scores with laughing gas than they do without. That is to say, according to this research, it really doesn't help with pain reduction.

"Nitrous oxide is gaining interest among expectant mothers as an option to manage labor pain and is becoming more widely available in the United States. However, we found that for the majority of patients, nitrous oxide does not prevent them from requesting an epidural. Nitrous oxide may be somewhat helpful, but epidural anesthesia remains the most effective method for managing labor pain," lead researcher Caitlin Sutton, M.D, said, according to a release for the study.

Nitrous oxide hasn't traditionally been used for pain management in the U.S.—though it has been utilized in places like the United Kingdom and Australia. While it doesn't physically reduce pain, it can bring down anxiety levels and make patients less aware of their pain—but it stands to reason that this effect might not be enough to wipe out the intense pain of childbirth, right?

Epidural, on the other hand, works topically: It blocks pain in the lower part of the body, but allows women to remain lucid while delivering. While that pain relief is definitely a plus for women who are in childbirth, we have to ask: Which option is better for women who are extremely anxious during labor?

We spoke with Sherry Ross, M.D., a Santa Monica-based OB/GYN, to get a better idea of whether or not laughing gas could be an effective antidote to labor pain—and her opinion is right in line with this study's findings. "Laughing gas, in my opinion, is sort of a pit stop on the way to an epidural," Dr. Ross told Fit Pregnancy. "It cuts the edge of the pain intensity, reduces your anxiety, makes [the pain] a little bit less sharp...but for those women who really need an analgesic for the pain, why wouldn't you want [an epidural], which is safe for the baby, safe for the mom and you don't feel any pain?"

With that being said, laughing gas can be safely used before an epidural for women who really want to bring down their anxiety levels before delivery—according to Dr. Ross, side effects can include dizziness or nausea, though. "It may be useful for that woman who is waiting for her epidural or women who want to try a few things...but it doesn't really have the same powerful effect in getting rid of the pain," she said.