New research examines use of nitrous oxide for labor pain

Research Activities, October 2012, No. 386

A new research review from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's (AHRQ's) Effective Healthcare Program has evaluated the use of inhaled nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas," to manage maternal pain during labor. Although nitrous oxide is commonly used in many countries for labor pain management, only five centers in the United States are known to provide it as an option. However, nitrous oxide offers several potential benefits that may make it appealing to women in the United States. For example, it is inexpensive, noninvasive, and can be self-administered as needed at any point during labor.

As expected, the research review found that nitrous oxide was less effective at controlling pain than epidural analgesia, but it noted that the quality of available studies was generally poor. The review also examined the effect of nitrous oxide on route of birth (i.e., vaginal, assisted, or cesarean), but the strength of evidence was insufficient to determine the effect. Additional research is needed to assess its effectiveness for pain control, women's satisfaction, type of birth, harms, and health system factors related to the use of nitrous oxide in labor.

Most negative effects to the mother reported in the study were unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and drowsiness. The study also looked at the effects on newborns and found that delivery room testing scores in newborns whose mothers used nitrous oxide were similar to those of newborns whose mothers used other labor pain management methods or no pain management treatments.

These findings can be found in the research review, Nitrous Oxide for the Management of Labor Pain. This review adds to AHRQ's growing library of resources on women's health.

To access this review and other materials that explore the effectiveness and risks of treatment options for various conditions, visit the Effective Health Care Program Web site at

Current as of October 2012
Internet Citation: New research examines use of nitrous oxide for labor pain: Research Activities, October 2012, No. 386. October 2012. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.