Pain Relief - Childbirth History and Pain Management

Natural pain relief during labor was the only option for women in ancient times right through the 17th century. Varied positions, breathing techniques and laboring upright were used to deal with lower back pain during labor. Early midwives also used massage techniques and herbal mixtures as ways of pain management during labor. (Herbs were sometimes also used to treat infertility or increase fertility.) Sometimes religious amulets were made out of herbs and these were thought to help provide relief. There was a time when praying to specific saints was thought to provide pain relief to laboring women.

For a while in the history of developed countries, midwifery was considered something only the uneducated and poor did. The process of giving birth became more of a scientific and medical procedure, and with this change came medical pain relief. Nowadays, hospital-supplied pain relief during labor is used more often than not, but there's an increased movement by some women back towards midwives and traditional, non-pharmacologic pain relief during labor. Midwifery is beginning to be a respected position again with formal training and resources available to those who pursue this profession.

The Move Towards Medical Labor Pain Relief

In the 18th century the scientific method of childbirth became more popular, especially among women of the upper classes. Forceps use became more common and male doctors were becoming more involved in childbirth. Families were large back then and doctors, in general, soon begin to see financial advantages to managing childbirth. Traditional midwives begin lose the respect they once had and were limited in the level and amount of birthing education they were permitted to have.

In some areas and by some religious groups, like the Puritans, medical intervention in the birthing process was considered too "magical" and unnatural. Anything that was seen as relieving the God's curse on Eve (that is the pain of childbirth) was seen as unholy. In these cases, midwives for still the ones who attended to women giving birth.

By the Victorian era, labor pain relief was increasing in popularity and becoming more fashionable, especially among the upper classes. In 1847 Scottish doctor James Simpson was recorded as using ether to treat labor pain. In 1853 Queen Victoria lets it be known that she used "blessed chloroform" when she gave birth to Prince Leopold.

More women were laboring and giving birth while lying on their backs. Chloroform became more commonly used, even though its use wasn't standardized, as were forceps to help remove the baby.

By the 1920s hospital births were the norm and women were commonly drugged into a state of semi-consciousness with a combination of morphine and scopolamine. It allowed women to have a baby without pain, or at least without the memory of the pain. This practice continued into the 1950s when medical research showed that the drugs caused newborns to be sleepy with breathing problems.

Modern Labor Pain Relief

There are a variety of breathing techniques and positions that can provide a laboring woman some pain relief naturally. These methods don't entirely get rid of the pain but can help with pain management. For complete pain relief, a woman needs to go the medical route.

An epidural is the better known version of medical labor pain relief. It involves an injection of painkilling drugs into the spine with a fine tube. It's injected around the nerves that carry signals of pain from one part of your body to the brain. Often the entire area from the abdomen down to the feet is numb so you don't feel a thing. Mobile epidurals are similar but provide a lower dose of the painkilling medication allowing you to walk with supervision.

Entonox, sometimes called laughing gas, is made up out of oxygen and nitrous oxide and can take the edge off of the pain of contractions. Demerol is sometimes used in the first stage of labor and is the synthetic version of morphine. It's given intravenously and you can control the dosage with a small pump.


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