Pain in Childbirth – Part 1

father in delivery room
Biological Purpose of Pain

The human body responds to pain with either the response to flee, or the response to stand and fight. Some responses are automatic, such as the immediate withdrawal of the hand when burned accidently. External pains can be avoided.

But, what is known as visceral (ves-er-al) pain cannot be escaped. These are ones from the internal organs, and the uterus is an internal organ. This is in the case of normal and natural function, not a diseased state.

Extreme hunger or excessive thirst are due to physiological imbalance. These can be painful, but satiated by eating and drinking.

How Pain is Felt

On the body surface and on the outside of various organs are nerve endings. These were heightened during man’s primitive days, as sensors when man was attacked by creatures with tooth and claw. Certain exterior areas are very sensitive such as the neck, under the arms, abdomen, and chest.

The internal organs also have receptors, but only register with pain mechanisms when the external area is severely injured. The interesting thing is “the intestines and uterus can be burnt, cauterized, handled and moved without any sensation of discomfort to the patient,…(34)”. But if either has been torn or stretched the receptors respond with pain. The question we have to ask is why only during birth is the sensation of pain felt…a normal function.

The nerves send the information to the part of the brain called the thalamus. Here the intensity of the pain is interpreted. Then they are sent to the outer cortex of the brain to be balanced and qualified. The response to the messages from the Thalamus would be dependent upon the magnitude of the message by the Thalamus. The strongest response is fear, which brings about the most motor responses.

The thing to emphasize here is that this response is recognized in the normal and uncomplicated labor. The degree of neuro-response mechanism is determined by the state of the particular woman who has the pain. One may get a sense of total agony, and feel she is in great discomfort. While another woman may sense that it is not intense agonizing pain. It depends on the mental state of the person.

For the woman in birth the first time, the pain sensation will cause tension. This tension sets the stage for a flight reaction, that causes the uterine muscles that are circumventing the lower portion of the uterus to tighten. The longitudinal muscles are then constricted.
It is the longitudinal muscles that work to assist the fetus to be expelled at birth. The circulatory muscular portion of the uterus causes the longitudinal muscles to struggle in the effort to dilate the cervix. They work in opposition rendering the lower portion of the uterus and outlet resistant to dilation. The two opposite reactions in the muscular structure is then interpreted by the brain as pain.

Therefore, the fear OF pain produces ACTUAL pain.

We are so conditioned to believe that childbirth must be painful. Even Hollywood’s depiction is of childbirth as a painful ordeal, showing women screaming in agony.
It does not have to be this way…

Pain in any other part of the body at any other time is an indicator or “alarm” that something is not right. In labor it is also…an indicator that you need to RELAX.

Pain in labor releases a hormone that inhibits labor.

The Vocabulary of Pain

 

father in delivery room

The following information was written in order to understand pain in childbirth. This is a preliminary to understanding what your body senses when in labor.

Pain Threshold

The definition is “the point in which an individual first perceives the presence of pain”. This could be when ice or heat no longer is affective for blocking and / or reducing pain.
Each person has their own threshold. It is thought that threshold remains the same throughout ones life. But, Childbirth educators have found that the threshold is quite flexible. It is found that when comfort measures are used that effectively reduce pain or make it easier to bear, and the woman is distracted from her comfort measures, then the comfort measures no longer are useful. It will take a stronger stimulus to then break through the pain. Nothing had changed in the strength of the pain itself, “rather, her distraction reduced her pain threshold so that less pain was necessary in order for her to notice it (162)”.

Intensity
Intensity is defined as “the quantitative measure of how strong or severe the pain is (Ibid.)”. The usual measurement is a scale of 0 to 10. O being no pain, and 10 meaning that the pain is out of control.

Character
Character is a qualitative measure, using verbal or pictorial descriptors and analogies. Pain character may be described as burning, aching, tearing, or sharp like a knife. Character is the most important aspect to consider when managing pain.

Duration
Concerning when pain is first noted, and how long it lasts, and whether it is a steady pain or sporatic. It is particularly significant in that smaller diameter nerve fibers may, after repetitive signals become more responsive to pain signals. Many management strategies that are not pharmaceutical focus on the larger nerve fibers, which respond well.

Location
It is where the pain is perceived in the body. Depending on the location, the distress level may rise and start to interfere with eating, breathing, sleep, concentration, or the ability to otherwise function normally. If she is unable to concentrate due to location or any other aspect of the pain, she will be less able to use the pain management strategies she has learned.

Sensation Threshold
It is the point where the stimulus was first perceived. When reached, it is when the client first is aware of itching, cold, pressure, pain, or any other sensation. Of these, pain is the most important in that it could signify potential or actual tearing. Other sensations that may later become concerning may eventually grow strong enough to be perceived as pain.

Pain Tolerance
Defined as the greatest severity of painful stimulation an individual is able or is willing to tolerate. “Encouraged Tolerance” is the highest level of pain a person will tolerate when encouraged to try to tolerate more”. It serves a purpose, but not for women in labor as it may lower the tolerance to pain. It actually would translate to suffering rather than just pain.

Categories of Pain

Cutaneous
Occurs at the dermal level, and is sharp, localized, and generally tonic. An example would be the prick of the needle when given an injection.

Visceral
Occurring at the organ level, could be sharp or dull. There is less localization and could either be tonic or episodic. Examples: uterine contractions, severe constipation, and intestinal gas.

Somatic
It occurs at the soft tissue level. It is dull, aching, not localized and usually tonic.

Nerve Compression
The pain results from pressure on one or more nerves. It may be localized, or be referred pain to one or more regions of the body.