More women are opting for some type of pain relief during their labour and delivery, according to a study by the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.

A survey of 378 hospitals showed that only 6 percent to 12 percent of women did not request pain relief, compared to 11 percent to 33 percent nine years prior.

Regional analgesia, including epidural, spinal or combined epidural-spinal techniques, accounted for 76 percent of the anesthesia services provided in the larger hospitals and for 57 percent in smaller hospitals.

There are two types of regional pain-relieving drugs – analgesics and anesthetics. Analgesia – pain relief without total loss of feeling or muscle movement – is typically administered to women in labour. This treatment blocks pain by numbing the nerves around the spinal or epidural space that encases the spinal cord. Anesthesia blocks all feeling and movement.

In the past, doctors debated the safety of using an epidural during early labour in first-time mothers. But newer research shows that those who are concerned about receiving pain relief during early labour may be able to rest easy.

Spinal-epidural analgesia during early labour does not increase the cesarean delivery rate in first-time mothers, according to a study by Dr. Cynthia A. Wong, associate professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

This study also found that analgesia via combined spinal-epidural techniques resulted in better pain relief and a shorter labour when compared to pain medications administered by other routes such as intravenous or intramuscular injections.

“Mothers have come to expect the kind of pain relief provided by regional techniques,” said Dr. Brenda Bucklin, associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. “With recent studies showing that having this type of anesthesia early in labour will not increase chances of a cesarean delivery, I think their popularity will continue.”