Nitrous oxide, often referred to as “laughing gas”, is an odorless, tasteless gas made for inhalation to provide analgesia. Today, nitrous oxide is used for pain relief by 60% -70% of laboring women in countries across the globe including Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Sweden. Only recently has it begun to resurface in some birthing units across the United States, including here in MA, where only 3 hospitals have implemented the use of nitrous oxide…that is, until now.
South Shore Hospital is the first hospital on the South Shore and fourth overall in the state of Massachusetts to join the ranks of innovative hospitals that are offering nitrous oxide. Providing the option of nitrous oxide for labor patients is yet another example of South Shore Hospital’s commitment to offering choices in childbirth, a list that includes midwifery care (in local practices and through their hospitalist program), a tub for laboring in the water, and the support of Centering group prenatal care.
Most women would agree that labor is no laughing matter. So how does nitrous oxide help improve the experience? Below are some answers to common questions related to nitrous oxide:
How is nitrous oxide used?
The concentration ratio of nitrous oxide found to be safe for use during labor and immediate postpartum is 50% nitrous oxide and 50% oxygen. The gas is self-administered, meaning that the patient holds the mask over her face, on her own, and then naturally releases it as she begins to feel more relaxed; thus providing a safeguard against administering too much nitrous oxide. The gas is fast-acting and quickly cleared as it is eliminated via the lungs. The peak effect of nitrous oxide for the laboring woman occurs approximately 30-50 seconds after inhalation.
What are the effects/benefits of nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide helps laboring women feel more comfortable because it helps generate a state of relaxation and a reduced perception of pain. It does not take all the pain away; however, for many women, it keeps their discomfort level within their threshold of tolerance. Some women are satisfied with nitrous oxide alone; others decide they want a stronger or alternative method of pain relief as their labor becomes more active or if they experience negative side effects from nitrous oxide.
What are some of the other ways nitrous oxide can be used?
In addition to relieving general labor pain, nitrous oxide can be used during forceps or vacuum delivery, manual removal of placenta, repair of perineal lacerations, and additional procedures which may cause the mother anxiety and impact her ability to cope.
What are the side effects?
Some women experience side effects when they inhale nitrous oxide while others do not. Potential side effects associated with using nitrous oxide include nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, dry mouth, vertigo, tingling of the fingers and toes, and an altered sense of taste and smell. These effects typically subside soon after discontinuing use of the gas.
If you are interested in trying nitrous oxide for pain relief, let your nurse or provider know when you arrive in labor. S/he will give you a detailed explanation of how the gas works and answer any questions you may have.