Moms Want Less Labor Pain

In about two weeks, Wendy McGahey is due to have her third child.

But for the first time, she'll go to the hospital knowing what to expect: A relatively pain-free delivery, thanks to anesthesia.

More women are opting for pain relief during labor and delivery, doctors say. Painkilling techniques have been refined and women are feeling less pressure from society to tough out the pain.

Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that in large hospitals, the use of regional anesthesia, epidurals and other spinal techniques tripled from 22 percent in 1981 to 66 percent in 1997.

McGahey said that when she went into labor five years ago with her first son, she decided against anesthesia until it was too late to change her mind.

"My biggest fear was getting a needle in my back," she said. But before long, "they could have put a pitchfork in my back. It was intense misery and I couldn't see an end in sight."

Two years later, the Hurst, Texas, woman entered the hospital to give birth again, and wary from her first delivery, asked for an epidural.

"It was instant euphoria," she said. "There was no pain. And when the baby came I felt rested."

McGahey, 28, said the experience was so enjoyable that she has no fears about giving birth to her next child due on Halloween.

"This time I'm not afraid," she said.

The survey results, gathered from 750 hospitals around the nation, were to be presented in Dallas today during the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

The survey found that in midsize hospitals, those with between 500 and 1,499 births per year, 55 percent of women opted for regional anesthesia in 1997, compared with 13 percent in 1981.

A huge increase was also reported at hospitals with fewer than 500 births per year. The percentage of women receiving regional anesthesia went from 9 percent in 1981 to 42 percent in 1997, the survey found.

Dr. Joy L. Hawkins, who led the research, said the increase at small hospitals partly can be attributed to an increased number of anesthesiologists on staff in obstetrical units. In the past, some obstetricians provided anesthesia.

Many patients in the survey also opted for narcotics to ease the pain during labor and delivery, she said.

Only 11 percent of obstetrical patients at large and midsize hospitals opted for no analgesia of any kind in 1997. In small hospitals, 17 percent of women had no pain relief.

But some doctors and mothers-to-be believe epidurals and other pain-relievers greatly raise the chances of a Caesarean section by slowing labor and inhibiting the mother's ability to push.

Childbearing techniques like Lamaze and the Bradley method first gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, advocating relaxation techniques and abdominal breathing to ease pain.

Hawkins said medical advances have made anesthesia safer. The development of ultrafine needles reduces the incidence of hedaches to less than 1 percent, she said.

"We have better needles and better drugs. We can provide pain relief where you can still walk around."