Health Team

UNC Hospitals offers laughing gas for labor pain

UNC Hospitals is the only facility in North Carolina to offer nitrous oxide as a pain-relieving treatment for childbirth

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When their daughter Kathleen was born just over two years ago, Jenny and Brian Crook didn't have time to ask about epidural anesthesia or other drugs to ease labor pains.

Last December, they planned a natural birth with son Thomas – until UNC Hospitals staff offered nitrous oxide.

“I kind of perked up because I knew what that was. I'm a nurse,” Jenny Crook said.

In Europe and Australia, expecting moms often ask for nitrous oxide – commonly known as “laughing gas” – instead of an epidural. Several recent studies show it is safe.

The treatment doesn't block labor pains.

“But for patients who don't want to use epidural anesthesia or can't use epidural anesthesia, nitrous oxide appears to be a very effective way to offer pain relief to patients,” said Dr. Robert Strauss of UNC Maternal Medicine.

UNC Hospitals is the only facility in North Carolina to offer the treatment, and Strauss said about 100 women have asked for it since December.

“Nitrous oxide primarily works by easing anxiety, taking the edge off and really helping the woman cope with the pain she's experiencing in labor,” UNC anesthesiologist Dr. Elje Harker said.

The mother holds the mask that delivers the gas. Crook, 41, said she felt the effects within two breaths.

“I didn't have to ask for someone to bring me medication. I could move the mask on and off my face as I wanted,” she said.

The act of inhaling opens a valve for the gas. When the woman exhales, the gas is disposed of through a scavenging tube and not into the room.

Crook says that, unlike traditional labor pain medications and interventions, nitrous oxide doesn't affect the baby, and there were no lasting effects on her.

“As soon as you've breathed a breath or two of room air, it's out of your system,” she said.

Even with laughing gas, the joy of having two beautiful children doesn't erase the memory of pain in delivery.

“People ask me if I laughed through the whole birth, and I said, ‘No, but I didn't curse out loud.’” Crook joked.



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