Genetic variant could act as pain relief for women in labour, says study

on 03 August 2020

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that a key genetic variant that could act as a natural epidural which could explain why some women do not require pain relief during labour.

As part of the study, a group of women were recruited who had their first baby carried to full-term and did not request any pain relief during an uncomplicated vaginal delivery.

Researchers carried out a number of tests on the women including applying heat or pressure to their arms, and putting their hands in icy water.

Compared to a controlled group of women who also experienced similar births but requested pain relief, the test group showed higher pain thresholds for heat, cold and mechanical pressure, consistent with them not requesting pain relief during childbirth.

Joint first author of the research, Dr Lee, said: “It is unusual for women to not request gas and air, or epidural for pain relief during labour, particularly when delivering for the first time. When we tested these women, it was clear their pain threshold was generally much higher than it was for other women.”

The gene variant is rare and referred to as gene KCNG4.

KCNG4 provides the code for the production of a protein that forms part of a ‘gate’, controlling the electric signal that flows along our nerve cells.

Responding to the study, Head of Quality and Safety at the Royal College of Midwives Zeenath Uddin said: “Every woman is different, and every birth is unique; what is important is that you get the pain relief that is right for you. Your midwife will discuss your options around and support to manage any pain ahead of the birth. This will include pain relief such as injections, tablets and Entonox, and ways to manage the pain including relaxation and distraction techniques, massage, and water birth.”

The research was conducted in collaboration between clinicians and scientists based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and the University of Cambridge.

Find out more about the research here.