Where Does Pain Come From in Labor?

Many people list pain as their number one reason for coming to childbirth classes. Fear is often a close second. This makes it very important to address both pain and fear during pregnancy before labor ever begins.

Until recently, many childbirth classes didn't really address pain. They talked about discomfort, pressure, being uncomfortable, but never pain. You want to find a childbirth educator who calls it like it is and discusses it in a straight forward manner. Some parts of labor are uncomfortable, but some are painful for most women. You will feel pressure and stretching as a part of normal labor.

Let's look at some of the causes of pain in labor. Think about it a minute and what do you think of when you hear someone say, "What causes pain in labor?"

You probably thought of contractions right away. Contractions can cause pain in labor, but let's look at this a bit more in-depth. Contractions are caused by the tightening of the uterine muscle. When any muscle is working that hard and potentially that long you are going to have a tired, overworked muscle, the build-up of lactic acid can be uncomfortable, along with the general strain.


Sample Contractions

Pregnant woman kneeling on a bed

Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws / Getty Images

Take a clothespin and hold it between your thumb and forefinger. Watch a clock and open and close the clothes pin between these two fingers for at least sixty seconds. The first ten seconds isn't so bad. Then a tightness might start to develop. You might begin to feel a burning sensation by thirty seconds.

As forty-five seconds approaches on your clock, you're probably hoping you can really hang in there for the long haul as the pain starts to move up your arm. Ah, at last, the end of the sixty seconds. While opening and closing the clothes pin is a very simplified version of what a muscle goes through, you get the picture of what a working muscle does.


Sources of Pain During Labor

Woman giving birth

Ryo Ohwada / Getty Images

Where does pain come from during the labor process? Pressure? Sure, the baby is moving around and pressing down to help the cervix open.

Your hips spreading and other body parts getting out of the way for the baby. These are all sources of potential pain in labor. Though not everyone will experience this type of pain in their labor.

Some procedures may cause you pain or discomfort. For example, having to remain in bed for a vaginal exam or while being monitored can increase your pain. 


The Role of Your Mind

Woman in pain putting her arm up to her head

PhotoAlto / Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Don't forget about your mind. Yes, how you think and feel can influence your pain levels in labor. If you are tense or fearful you will create more pain. We see this over and over again in a theory that is called the "Fear-Tension-Pain" cycle.

In the "Fear-Tension-Pain" cycle we see that when you are in pain and fearful you tense because you are fearful, which does increase your pain levels. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy about pain. The more you fear pain, the more pain you are in. So we try to step in and break that cycle anyway that we can.

That brings us to a big question. What can we do to break the cycle of fear and pain? Do we have any tools that will effectively deal with the pain?

Do you realize that you already have a lot of tools that you can use to deal with pain in labor?

Think about it. What would you do if you were in pain or scared right now?


Things You Do When in Pain

Woman wiping away tears

Arman Zhenikeyev /  Getty Images

  • Ask for your mommy
  • Cry
  • Deep breathe to calm down
  • Get a massage
  • Move around
  • Sleep it off
  • Take a bath
  • Take medicine
  • Use pressure
  • Whine

Can you do these things in labor? You bet you can! Some of these are better than others, and part of it is simply a personal choice. Part of this will depend on what labor nature has given you.

However, everyone will have some tools to use for labor. A good childbirth class will also help you explore all of your options for pain relief, including the use of medication and epidural anesthesia.

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.