Non-Drug Pain Coping Strategies Improve Outcomes

 Today, contributor Henci Goer reviews a recently published study in the journal Birth, that compared the outcomes of births in women who received non pharmacological pain management techniques with women who received the “usual care” treatment.  The researchers found that maternal and infant outcomes were improved.  Take a moment to read Henci’s review to get a glimpse at the results and her analysis.- Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

© Patti Ramos Photography

© Patti Ramos Photography

In 2012,  the Cochrane Database published an overview of systematic reviews of forms of pain management that summarized the results of the Cochrane database’s suite of systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of various pain management techniques. Reviewers reached the rather anemic conclusion that epidurals did best at relieving pain—no surprise there—but increased need for medical intervention—no surprise there either—while non-drug modalities (hypnosis, immersion in warm water, relaxation techniques, acupressure/acupuncture, hands on techniques such as massage or reflexology, and TENS) did equally well or better than their comparison groups (“standard care,” a placebo, or a different specific treatment) at relieving pain, at satisfaction with pain relief, or both, and they had no adverse effects (Jones 2012). Insofar as it went, this finding was helpful for advocating for use of non-drug strategies, but it didn’t go very far.

Fast forward two years, and we have a new, much more robust review: Nonpharmacologic approaches for pain management during labor compared with usual care: a meta-analysis. Its ingenious authors grouped trials of non-drug pain relief modalities according to mechanism of action, which increased the statistical power to determine their effects and avoided inappropriately pooling data from dissimilar studies in meta-analyses (Chaillet 2014). The three mechanisms were Gate Control Theory, which applies nonpainful stimuli to partially block pain transmission; Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control, which administers a painful stimulus elsewhere on the body, thereby blocking pain transmission from the uterine contraction and promoting endorphin release in the spinal cord and brain; and Central Nervous System Control, which affects perception and emotions and also releases endorphins within the brain.

Overall, 57 RCTs comparing non-drug strategies with usual care met eligibility criteria: 21 Gate Control (light massage, warm water immersion, positions/ambulation, birth ball, warm packs), 10 Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (sterile water injections, acupressure, acupuncture, high intensity TENS), and 26 Central Nervous System Control (antenatal education, continuous support, attention deviation techniques, aromatherapy). Eleven of the Central Nervous System Control trials specifically added at least one other strategy to continuous support. More about the effect of that in a moment.

Now for the results…

Compared with Gate Control-based strategies, usual care was associated with increased use of epidurals (6 trials, 3369 women, odds ratio: 1.22), higher labor pain scores (3 trials, 278 women, mean difference 1 on a scoring range of 0-10), and more use of oxytocin (10 trials, 2672 women, odds ratio: 1.25). Usual care also increased likelihood of cesarean in studies of walking (3 trials, 1463 women, odds ratio: 1.64).

Compared with Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control strategies, usual care was associated with increased use of epidurals (6 trials, 920 women, odds ratio: 1.62), higher labor pain scores (1 trial, 142 women, mean difference 10 on a scoring range of 0-100), and decreased maternal satisfaction as measured in individual trials by feeling safe, relaxed, in control, and perception of experience.

We hit the jackpot with Central Nervous System Control strategies (probably because female labor support, which has numerous studies and strong evidence supporting it, dominate this category [19 labor support, 6 antenatal education, 1 aromatherapy]). As before, usual care is associated with more epidurals (11 trials, 11,957 women, odds ratio: 1.13), more use of oxytocin (19 trials, 14,293 women, odds ratio: 1.20), and decreased maternal satisfaction as measured in individual trials by perception of experience and anxiety. In addition, however, usual care is associated with increased likelihood of cesarean delivery (27 trials, 23,860 women, odds ratio: 1.60), instrumental delivery (21 trials, 15,591 women, odds ratio: 1.21), longer labor duration (13 trials, 4276 women, 30 min), and neonatal resuscitation (3 trials, 7069 women, odds ratio: 1.11).

© Breathtaking Photography http://flic.kr/p/3255VD

© Breathtaking Photography http://flic.kr/p/3255VD

The big winner, though, was continuous support combined with at least one other strategy. Usual care in these 11 trials was even more disadvantageous than in central nervous system trials overall with respect to cesareans (11 trials, 10,338 women): odds ratio 2.17 versus 1.6 for all central nervous system trials, and instrumental delivery (6 trials, 2281 women): odds ratio 1.78 versus 1.21 for all central nervous system trials.

The strength of the data is impressive. Altogether, Chaillet et al. report on 97 outcomes, of which 44 differences favoring non-drug strategies achieve statistical significance, meaning the difference is unlikely to be due to chance, while not one statistically significant difference favors usual care. And there’s still more: benefits of non-drug strategies are probably greater than they appear because on the one hand, “usual care” could include non-drug strategies for coping with labor pain and on the other, many institutions have policies and practices that make it difficult to cope using non-drug strategies alone, strongly encourage epidural use, or both.

The reviewers conclude that their findings showed that:

Nonpharmacologic approaches can contribute to reducing medical interventions, and thus represent an important part of intrapartum care, if not used routinely as the first method for pain relief…however, in some situations, nonpharmacologic approaches may become insufficient…the use of pharmacologic approaches could then be beneficial to reduce pain intensity to prevent suffering and help women cope with labor pain…birth settings and hospital policies . . . should facilitate a supportive birthing environment and should make readily available a broad spectrum of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic pain relief approaches. (p. 133)

No one could argue with that, but a persuasive argument alone is unlikely to carry the day given the entrenched systemic barriers in many hospitals. States an anesthesiologist: “While there may be problems with high epidural usage, in the presence of our nursing shortages and economic or business considerations, having a woman in bed, attached to an intravenous line and continuous electronic fetal monitor and in receipt of an epidural may be the only realistic way to go” (quoted in Leeman 2003). The Cochrane reviewers concur, writing that using non-drug strategies is “more realistic” (p. 4) outside of the typical hospital environs.

So long as this remains the case, attempts to introduce non-drug options are likely to make little headway. As Lamaze International’s own Judith Lothian trenchantly observes:

If we put women in hospitals with restrictive policies—they’re hooked up to everything, they’re expected to be in bed—of course they’re going to go for the epidural because they’re unable to work through their pain. . . . I go wild with nurses and childbirth educators who say, . . . “[Women] just want to come in and have their epidural.” I say, “And even if they don’t . . ., they come to your hospital, and they have no choice. . . . They can’t manage their pain because you won’t let them.” (quoted in Block 2007, p. 175)

Success at integrating non-drug strategies will almost certainly depend on addressing underlying factors that maintain the status quo. Can it be done? You tell us. Does your hospital take a multifaceted approach to coping with labor pain? If so, how was it implemented and how is it sustained?


Block, Jennifer. (2007). Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Chaillet, N., Belaid, L., Crochetiere, C., Roy, L., Gagne, G. P., Moutquin, J. M., . . . Bonapace, J. (2014). Nonpharmacologic approaches for pain management during labor compared with usual care: a meta-analysis. Birth, 41(2), 122-137. doi: 10.1111/birt.12103 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24761801

Jones, L., Othman, M., Dowswell, T., Alfirevic, Z., Gates, S., Newburn, M., . . . Neilson, J. P. (2012). Pain management for women in labour: an overview of systematic reviews. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 3, CD009234. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009234.pub2 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2241934

Leeman, L., Fontaine, P., King, V., Klein, M. C., & Ratcliffe, S. (2003). Management of labor pain: promoting patient choice. Am Fam Physician, 68(6), 1023, 1026, 1033 passim. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14524393?dopt=Citation

About Henci Goer

Henci Goer

Henci Goer

Henci Goer, award-winning medical writer and internationally known speaker, is the author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth and Optimal Care in Childbirth: The Case for a Physiologic Approach winner of the American College of Nurse-Midwives “Best Book of the Year” award.An independent scholar, she is an acknowledged expert on evidence-based maternity care.  

Childbirth Education, Doula Care, Epidural Analgesia, Guest Posts, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, Newborns, Research , , , , ,

  1. July 17th, 2014 at 17:07 | #1

    The status quo is inconsistent with an understanding of the hormonal flows which optimise physiological healthy birth for mother and baby including endorphin release!

  2. avatar
    Jocelyn Alt
    August 7th, 2014 at 20:23 | #2

    It’s great to see such a comprehensive review of studies on natural pain management techniques. There is currently much more research available about medical pain management in labor, so this is a much needed addition to the canon of existing knowledge about managing pain in childbirth.

  3. October 10th, 2014 at 10:27 | #3

    As a doula I am happy to see that outcomes are best when non-pharm approaches are used in conjunction with continuous care! Out of the four hospitals I attend births at, two stand out as having the attitude and the facilities to make non-pharm options viable. A third has the attitude, but the facilities are tiny and antiquated. The fourth has the facility but not the attitude.
    So in my mind three out of four (a clever doula can overcome tiny antiquated facilities) is pretty lucky for my clients that wish to have non-pharm approaches to pain relief. Intermittent monitoring is the norm, freedom of movement is encouraged, hydrotherapy is available, and doulas are welcomed. I feel lucky and hope with time the fourth hospital well come around to supporting doulas and a more natural approach to birth.

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