Heat and Cold Therapy
Contractions cause muscles to cramp, become exhausted, and ache. Just as a heating pad on your lower abdomen can ease menstrual cramps and ice can relieve aching muscles after working out, heat and cold therapy can relieve pain and encourage relaxation in labor.
One study focused on the effects of heat and cold therapy in labor. Their results reported “pain was significantly lower” the first and second phases of labor and “duration of the first and third phases of labor was shorter.” They also found that “there were no significant differences in type of delivery, perineal laceration, oxytocin uptake, fetal heart rate, and APGAR.”
Heath and cold therapy is an inexpensive alternative to medicated pain relief prior to, during, and after labor. I highly recommend considering a few of the methods of administering this therapy for relaxation and discomfort relief.
Heat causes blood vessels to open wider, move closer to the skin surface, and increase blood flow. Increasing blood flow to a muscle aids in it’s repair, which helps with muscle fatigue and pain. It also makes the muscle more efficient and contractions more effective.
Heat can be administered through various methods: warm bath, heating pad, hot water bottle, and rice socks. While a heating pad offers consistent heat, it is not safe to sleep with a heating pad and some hospitals or birth centers may not have a plug near where you need it or may not allow a heating element that has not been approved by engineering. A warm bath or warm blankets can provide a heat source to a large area for general relaxation or warmth. Smaller items like a hot water bottle or rice sock are wonderful for administering head to a precise area like the lower back or pubic bone. These devices do lose heat over time but are safe to sleep with and are easy to reheat.
Cooling an area is a great way to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself after tissue has been damaged. Damage to tissue can occur in labor through the engagement of muscles through contractions, the stretching of the perineal tissues, and any tears in the skin like perineal tear, episiotomy, or c-section. While acute inflammation is not often dangerous it can be uncomfortable. Cold therapy can aid in reducing inflammation thus making your more comfortable.
Cold therapy for inflammation can be administered by using cool wash cloths, an ice pack, or cooling gel that has been in the fridge or freezer. Many women especially love what are called “padsicles” for relieving the pain and swelling in the perineal area after birth. Padsicles are feminine pads soaked in witch hazel (a great substance for reducing inflammation) and sometimes aloe vera and essential oils. They are then kept in the freezer until you need them. Here is one “recipe” for making them but you can find hundreds online.
During labor, you are working very hard and your hormones are soaring. This can lead to you becoming very hot. If you are anything like me, when you get hot, you get grumpy. Add that to being in pain and a storm can erupt. Cold therapy is very useful for keeping mom cool. Placing a wash cloth that has been in ice water on the back of her neck and forehead can instantly bring relief to mom. At births, I keep a basin or cooler full of ice water and wash cloths so they are always handy and can easily be rotated as the compresses loose their coolness.
Precaution should always be taken when using heat or cold after receiving an epidural. The numbing effect from an epidural can make a woman less sensitive to temperature extremes which may lead to burning or frost bite. Heat may also cause overheating in a woman who has received an epidural due to how it effects the body’s ability to dissipate heat as normal. If the mother begins running a fever, heat should also be avoided.
Heat and cold therapy can be great alternatives to medication for pain relief in labor. It can also be a wonderful alernative in pregnancy, as well. Having a few rice socks and ice packs on hand would be an inexpensive item to add to your medicine cabinet for home and your birth bag for the hospital/birth center.
If you are in the Denton, TX area and are interested in hiring a doula for your birth experience, contact me today to schedule a free consultation. If you are interested in learning about more comfort measures in labor, check out my Comfort Measures page.