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Nitrous Oxide as an Alternative to the Epidural

Gases / Industries

Rocky Mountain Air Solutions is not a medical advisor, but a provider of medical grade gases to areas within the medical industry.

Giving birth to a child may be the single most marvelous thing the human body can do. It’s also one of the most painful. The options of a drug-free natural childbirth or injecting narcotics from a hollow epidural needle into the spine both seem like two choices on opposite sides of the spectrum. Could there actually be a safer option that meets somewhere in the middle?

You may have heard of Nitrous Oxide by a different name – Laughing Gas. The colorless gas has been used for dental procedures since the early 20th century, but in more recent years has been used as an analgesic during labor. According to the American Pregnancy Association, roughly 50% of women in countries with high health standards including the UK, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Finland, opt to use Nitrous Oxide during labor as an alternative to the epidural. The United States has not yet adopted this method, with the epidural still being the most common pain reliever for childbirth.

One of the advantages to using Nitrous Oxide is that it is fairly close to natural childbirth. The gas is administered through a mask with a mixture typically comprised of 50% Oxygen, 50% Nitrous Oxide. There are no needles, no monitors and no IV drips, but there is additional Oxygen flow making its way into the body. The simple administration has no adverse effects on the natural progress of labor and the mask can be set aside at any time. Women decide how much and when to use, and can make the decision to transfer to another pain reliever within a safe timeframe. Many women have been empowered by the experience and felt more in control of their bodies because they operate the mask and control the airflow through each breath, controlling their pain management choices for themselves.

Inhaling Nitrous Oxide reduces the body’s stress response in a more natural way. It is low cost, low risk and low intervention with the body’s normal process. It increases endorphins, dopamine and other natural neurotransmitters while decreasing the release of cortisol. Almost all remnants of the gas leave the body when exhaled – 99%, in fact. Less than 1% of the gas is stored, and the effects wear off within five minutes of taking off the mask. The other good news is that it does not cross the placenta, making this alternative safer for mother and baby.

Women have spoken about Nitrous Oxide’s greatest effect – relieving anxiety. As it is not as intense as an epidural, the labor pains are not as numbed. It is not a miracle gas that takes the pain away, but it does have the power to reduce anxiety and keep the mother calm. Some women say that administering the gas themselves gave them something else to focus on as they matched their breath with each contraction. Others have compared it to a placebo effect, but still vouch for its anxiety-relieving capabilities.

Of course, Nitrous Oxide has its own list of risks and is not a miracle method. The most common side effects are dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Side effects also include fatigue, headache, hazy memory of the event, hallucinations and euphoria. When it is used in high potency amounts, it can be very dangerous for women and have addictive responses. However, the gas mixture is generally safe as long as it does not exceed more than 50% and is combined with Oxygen. That being said, it is not advised for women who have B12 deficiencies, which may include vegans, those with Crohn’s disease or a MTHFR gene mutation.

The American College of Nurse-Midwives says, “While N2O is not without side effects and will not be agreeable to or effective for every woman in labor, it is an inexpensive, simple, reasonably safe, and effective analgesic. It is important that midwives know about N2O analgesia and be able to offer it to women during labor.” The full position statement of attributes and concerns can be read here.

The medical industry is just one of the many industries we serve here at Rocky Mountain Air Solutions. We offer medical grade gases and Mixed Gases, and can easily provide a mixture of Nitrous Oxide and Oxygen tailored for the birthing process. We happily assist the childbirth process by delivering cylinders directly to any hospital or childbirth clinic, as well as to licensed healthcare providers in a home birth setting.

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