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It’s no secret: contractions hurt. Real gripping discomfort is the main way you can tell labor contractions from the Braxton-Hicks kind. While there are actually no nerve endings inside the uterus there are a lot in your pelvis and around it. During a contraction the uterine muscles tighten and pull up around the baby– think of squeezing an egg out of a tube sock– and this means strong pressure on all of the surrounding nerves. Unlike the pain from a pinched nerve or muscle injury, though, labor pain comes in waves, building, peaking and then starting to go away just when you think you can’t take it anymore.
Here are some labor pain-relief options:
Walking. As with any muscle cramp, walking and moving with feel much better than sitting still. Have a partner or your labor assistant walk you up and down the halls, stopping for contractions.
Heat. If your water hasn’t broken try a hot bath. If your water has broken try a shower (make sure you have help and be careful of slipping during a contraction, though), or a heating pad on your back or shoulders.
Bouncing. Now is the time to use a birth ball! Sit on it supported during a contraction or hug it while on your knees. The counter-pressure on your pelvis can help support the weight of the baby during contraction, meaning less painful pull on your nerves.
Counterpressure and counter-stretches. Stand holding a heavy piece of furniture or wall rail while your partner or doula pushes (hard!) from behind with their palms on the your hipbones during a contraction. This can also help “unsqueeze” the affected nerves. Also try squatting (supported) in a plié.
Epidural. How quickly you can get one depends on how dilated you are and how busy the hospital happens to be. Most doctors will want you to wait until at least 4-5 centimeters’ dilation to get one out of worry that it might slow down contractions. It’s only too late to get an epidural if the baby is crowning. While epidurals aren’t without a risk of side effects, including nausea and itching, severe headaches and fever, infection and a risk of simply not working,in general epidurals are extremely safe and effective.
Mindful breathing and relaxation. As you go through a contraction, consciously relax the muscles in your shoulder, jaw and neck. Time your contractions and practice steady, slow breathing– resist holding your breath or panting. Remind yourself that you’re strong, you can do this, you’re safe and surrounded by people there to help.
Water birth, acupressure, nitrous oxide, massage, TENS machines… Some hospitals or individual labor assistants may offer extra pain-relief management tools. Be sure to ask what’s available when you interview doulas and tour hospitals.