According to a recent article published by MSNBC, laughing gas or nitrous oxide is making its way back into labor and delivery units in American hospitals. Although laughing gas has long been used as a pain relief in various countries, including Canada and the U.K., it has lost its popularity in the U.S. Well, maybe not for much longer.
It appears that a number of hospitals are now considering making laughing gas available as a pain relief measure for women in labor. A hospital in San Francisco and another in Seattle have been using laughing gas in their labor and delivery units for a while. Hospitals like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center plan to offer laughing gas to laboring mothers in the immediate future. Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s plan is currently being reviewed by the federal government, and arrangements are presently being made for the procurement of delivery equipment for laughing gas. Vanderbilt University Medical Center may begin offering laughing gas as well later this year.
Laughing gas is not a new pain relief method. Its use had become very common in hospitals when Joseph Thomas Clover invented the gas-ether inhaler in 1876. Particularly, its use in the labor and delivery setting had been very common before the introduction of epidural and spinal anesthesia. Because laughing gas is unable to eliminate pain to the same degree as epidural or spinal anesthesia, it simply could not compete with the more sophisticated pain relief alternatives, which entered the marker in the 30s and 40s.
What is laughing gas?
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or sweet air, is a chemical compound with the formula N2O. It is an oxide of nitrogen. At room temperature, it is a colorless non-flammable gas, with a slightly sweet odor and taste. It is used in surgery and dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic effects. It is known as “laughing gas” due to the euphoric effects of inhaling it, a property that has led to its recreational use as a dissociative anesthetic.
Laughing gas as an important pain relief alternative
Although laughing gas can only take the edge off pain, it just might be an important alternative to other more conventional pain relief methods. The patient does not have to rely on an anesthesiologist to administer the gas. The patient can herself choose how much gas to administer at any time. The effects of the gas are not long-lasting. Therefore, the patient does not have to recover in a post anesthesia care unit. Importantly, there is no associated loss of sensation and motor function during the delivery process. As such, the gas does not interfere with the woman’s ability to breath and push during labor. Laughing gas is also not known to have any adverse effects on the baby in utero.
The administration of laughing gas does not require any invasive medical procedures. By contrast, consider epidural anesthesia: An epidural requires that an epidural catheter be threaded into the epidural space, which is only about 2 mm wide. Any mistake and the consequences can be catastrophic. Epidurals have been known to cause spinal cord injury secondary t0 toxicity, spinal cord infarcts, severe hypotension, paraplegia, epidural bleeding, and even death. None of these complications are associated with the use of laughing gas.
According to Suzanne Serat, a nurse midwife at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center:
We have a number of people who don’t want to feel the pain of labor, and nitrous oxide would not be a good option for them. They really need an epidural, and that’s perfect for them. […] Then we have a number of people who are going to wait and see what happens, and when they’re in labor, decide they’d like something and then the only option for them is an epidural but they don’t need something that strong. So they would choose to use something in the middle, but we just don’t have anything in the middle.
Nitrous oxide may just prove to be that middle option for many women who prefer to give birth without the use of powerful and potentially dangerous analgesic/anesthetic agents. If you are an expectant mother, ask your obstetrician if nitrous oxide is a pain relief option that may be available to you during labor.
Image from cartoonstock.com
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