It’s the sort of pain that only one half of the human population can experience. And men wonder if it’s really as painful as women make it to be. It’s not just childbirth, but the contractions leading up to the actual birth are pretty painful too. This begs the question, what’s more painful – contractions or pushing?
It has been reported that women say contractions hurt more than pushing. But does it really? How can pushing a human being out of you be less painful than the contractions preceding it? However, women reckon the perineum is numb from pressure by the time you get to the pushing stage. So, you don’t feel it as much as you’d think.
A possible explanation is that contractions are more gradual and involve a lot of your anatomy. From muscles to ligaments, organs to nerves, and even the skin – all get in on the act. It lasts for hours and gets more painful as it progresses. That too, the progress is so slow. It’s a minute of contraction betweenevery few hours for god’s sake! Pushing takes far less time than that. Everything below the ribs is working hard to eventually allow you to push your baby out during labour.
It’s difficult to say what contractions really feel like as it is also subjective. Some women describe it as really strong menstrual cramps. It starts as strong menstrual cramps and progressively gets worse and worse. False contractions, or Braxton Hicks contractions, go away when you relax or change positions. These may occur as early as the second trimester. They are merely a way for your body to be prepared for the eventual real thing (1). True contractions don’t stop no matter what you do – trying to relax or shifting positions doesn’t help.
With no pain medication, the process of childbirth is rated 10 on the pain scale (2). With proper childbirth education, the pain can be lowered quite significantly. Hypnosis, breathing exercises, and the likes have been shown to be a real boon when it comes to pain management (3). With these techniques, some women have even reported that labour doesn’t hurt at all. However, far more women have stated that it’s pain beyond belief.
Of course, anaesthetics and analgesics are options too for those who want them. Analgesics relive pain without any loss of feeling. Anaesthetics, on the other hand,lead to a loss of feeling as well as pain (4). Muscle movement is also blocked. Usually, anaesthetics make you lose consciousness. If you’re going to have a caesarean delivery, you will likely be given general, spinal, or epidural anaesthesia.
An epidural administers medication near the spinal cord and spinal nerves. It doesn’t come without any risks, however. It has been shown to decrease blood pressure, which can slow the baby’s heart rate. It can also cause a headache (5).
Ultimately, the sort given depends on your health and that of your baby, along with the surrounding in which you’re giving birth in.
When the time eventually comes for the actual pushing, it’s more of a relief. It’s giving into what feels natural. Most of the work is already done by this time so you just have to do what comes innately. The baby pushes on nerves, thereby removing sensation in the pelvis. Some women even opine that it feels good, much like an orgasm. The pushing part is when you finally get to actively do something. You can take solace in the fact that after hours of the passive process of experiencing contractions, it’s up to you now to finish the process of giving birth.
As might be expected, every woman’s experience is different. Some might not find contractions to be more painful than the pushing – there’s every chance. However, since the very nature of pain is subjective, it’s difficult, and wrong, to judge what another woman finds painful or not.
Final verdict: in most cases, contractions are more painful than pushing. But it’s not a sure thing.