This is one of those news stories where my biases show, like woah, and I'm happy to admit it. In the UK, 50% of laboring women take advantage of nitrous oxide (good ol' dentist's office laughing gas) for pain relief. The rates of usage are about the same in Canada and even higher in countries like Finland. If you read up on the stuff, this isn't terribly surprising. Nitrous oxide gas doesn't totally eliminate childbirth pain, but studies show it does a great job of taking the edge off and without the long-term loopiness of injected narcotics or the limitations on movement (and the whole needle-in-your-spine bit) that goes along with epidurals. Plus, it's pain relief that's controlled by the woman, herself. You just take a hit off the gas whenever you find your contraction warrants it. No anesthesiologist necessary.
I'm due to give birth in less than two months and this is something I'd love to use. But I can't. Because there are only two hospitals in the entire United States that offer it as an option. They're both on the West Coast. (NOTE: Reader djmburr says his wife was able to use nitrous oxide at Baptist Hospital in Nashville earlier this year. So it sounds like there are more hospitals allowing this than making it into the news.)
Why? The answer is really unclear, but the dearth of nitrous in this country certainly got nothing to do with legit safety concerns. In a story at WBUR's Common Health blog, Rachel Zimmerman looks at the evidence behind a treatment for pain that is common damn near everywhere but here and tries to get to the bottom of why it's not being offered to American women.
Holly Powell Kennedy, Ph.D., a certified nurse midwife and professor of midwifery at Yale University School of Nursing, says one of the reasons nitrous isn’t used in the U.S. is simply cultural. Many women make decisions about childbirth based on what they learn from family and friends, and most have never heard of or used nitrous oxide for coping with labor pain. But in the U.K, Dr. Kennedy says: “Nitrous oxide is just part of life; women expect they will have access to it. It’s in every birth room and every bathroom so women can use it and still be mobile.”
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.