Healthcare News & Insights

More hospitals using ‘laughing gas’ to relieve labor pain

Hospitals are exploring alternative ways to relieve patients’ pain for many common procedures. It’s become common to give mothers who are in labor epidurals, but now some facilities have taken a different tactic and are giving expectant mothers nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” for their pain during delivery. 

According to an article in NPR, laughing gas was once a popular pain reliever for mothers in labor. But the development of stronger drugs caused it to fall out of favor.

However, the growing interest in low-intervention deliveries without the use of potent pain medications has caused laughing gas to re-emerge as an option.

Benefits & advocates

Instead of directly relieving the pain, like an epidural, laughing gas helps women in labor “take the edge off” their contractions by creating a sense of relaxation. Combined with breathing techniques, it can be effective for many women who want to have more control over their bodies when giving birth.

Even as nitrous oxide became less common for labor pain in the United States, hospitals in Europe continued to offer it as an option for decades. Data shows it’s safe in small doses, and it doesn’t linger in the body like stronger pain relievers do, meaning it’s less risky for the baby.

Nurse midwives have lead the movement to get laughing gas back in hospitals for labor pain. More midwives are taking on a role as advocates for mothers to take an active role in the delivery process by having a variety of options to choose from.

A few years ago, the American College of Nurse Midwives even released a statement saying midwives should be aware of the effectiveness of nitrous oxide as a pain reliever. Due in part to this influence, more facilities have decided to offer it to patients.

And it’s not just a handful of hospitals that have gotten on the bandwagon, either. According to the two biggest manufacturers of nitrous oxide systems, hundreds of U.S. hospitals are offering pregnant women laughing gas during delivery. One manufacturer alone says it serves close to 300 birth centers and hospitals.

More options, lower costs

Besides pain relief, laughing gas has another big benefit: Administering nitrous oxide is significantly cheaper than an epidural. In some cases, thousands of dollars in costs are saved. Plus, it doesn’t have to be given to patients by an anesthesiologist. Trained staff, including midwives, can give it to patients.

There’s one financial problem, however. Because using nitrous oxide during birth is a relatively new trend, it doesn’t have a charge code for administration. So it’s difficult for hospitals to bill for it. Some payors cover it just like any standard pain killer. Others won’t, and hospitals will charge patients directly for its use – or just write off the costs because they’re so small.

But even when writing off the cost of laughing gas, its use is still likely saving hospitals money when considering the costs required to perform an epidural on a patient. And saving costs will be essential if payors switch to a bundled payment model for maternity care.

With that in mind, it’s worth exploring whether you should offer nitrous oxide to mothers giving birth. Plus, offering women more options when they’re delivering babies can show that your hospital is dedicated to giving an excellent experience to mothers and newborns, which can be beneficial for improving patient satisfaction scores.

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