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Boston hospital offers laughing gas for labor

Boston hospital offers laughing gas for labor

Brigham and Women’s Hospital last week became the first labor and delivery center in Boston to offer nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, to women in labor. Women inhale at the beginning of every contraction to take the edge off their pain and relax a bit. It takes about 30 seconds to work, and wears off about 30 seconds after the mask is removed, said Dr. Bill Camann, director of obstetric anesthesia at the Brigham.

“Patients control it themselves and take as many breaths as they like,” he said; usually, they remove the mask in between contractions.

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For unknown reasons, laughing gas for labor pain fell out of favor in this country several decades ago. Only a handful of hospitals including the University of Washington in Seattle have continued to use it through the years, but it’s been used routinely in other countries, including Great Britain, Australia, and Canada.

Camann said his colleagues at other Boston hospitals have been asking him about it and seem eager to try it.

Epidurals won’t be replaced by nitrous oxide since an epidural completely blocks pain, which laughing gas doesn’t do. Patients may find that the gas works during early labor, said Camann, and then switch to an epidural once the pain gets excruciating.

Both forms of anesthesia are very safe, and serious side effects are extremely rare. In about 1 percent of cases, women who have epidurals can develop severe headaches that may last a day or two, Camann said. Epidurals also require women to stay in bed during labor. Laughing gas can cause nausea, especially with prolonged use, and shouldn’t be used in women with a rare form of anemia. D.K.

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