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CNS Drugs. 2009 Aug;23(8):669-79. doi: 10.2165/00023210-200923080-00004.

The management of breakthrough pain during labour.

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Department of Anaesthesia, Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds, UK.


There is a long history of attempts to alleviate the pain of childbirth, particularly in Asian and Middle Eastern civilisations. In the UK, it was the administration of chloroform to Queen Victoria by John Snow in 1853 that is widely credited with popularizing the idea that labour pain should and could be treated. Medical analgesia is now well established around the globe with a wealth of research evidence describing methods, efficacy and complications. In this article, we define 'primary breakthrough pain' as the moment when a woman first requests analgesia during labour. The management of this can include simple emotional support, inhaled analgesics, parenteral opioids and epidural analgesia. 'Secondary breakthrough pain' can be defined as the moment when previously used analgesia becomes ineffective. We concentrate our discussion of this phenomenon on the situation when epidural analgesia begins to fail. Only epidural analgesia offers the potential for complete analgesia, so when this effect is lost the recipient can experience significant distress and dissatisfaction. The best strategy to avert this problem is prevention by using the best techniques for epidural catheterisation and the most effective drug combinations. Even then, epidurals can lose their efficacy for a variety of reasons, and management is hampered by the fact that each rescue manoeuvre takes about 30 minutes to be effective. If the rescue protocol is too cautious, analgesia may not be successfully restored before delivery, leading to patient dissatisfaction. We therefore propose an aggressive response to epidural breakthrough pain using appropriate drug supplementation and, if necessary, the placement of a new epidural catheter. Combined spinal epidural techniques offer several advantages in this situation. The goal is to re-establish analgesia within 1 hour. The primary aim of pain management during labour and delivery is to provide the level of comfort determined as acceptable to each individual woman. Some require little or no analgesia, while others demand complete abolition of pain. Whatever the individual's personal point of breakthrough pain is, supporting clinicians should respond logically and rapidly to re-establish analgesia using locally agreed protocols. This approach will maximize patient satisfaction and hopefully increase the pleasure and satisfaction of childbirth.

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