Parenteral opioids for maternal pain management in labour

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Jun 5;6(6):CD007396. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007396.pub3.


Background: Parenteral opioids (intramuscular and intravenous drugs including patient-controlled analgesia) are used for pain relief in labour in many countries throughout the world. This review is an update of a review first published in 2010.

Objectives: To assess the effectiveness, safety and acceptability to women of different types, doses and modes of administration of parenteral opioid analgesia in labour. A second objective is to assess the effects of opioids in labour on the baby in terms of safety, condition at birth and early feeding.

Search methods: We searched Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth's Trials Register,, the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (11 May 2017) and reference lists of retrieved studies.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials examining the use of intramuscular or intravenous opioids (including patient-controlled analgesia) for women in labour. Cluster-randomised trials were also eligible for inclusion, although none were identified. We did not include quasi-randomised trials. We looked at studies comparing an opioid with another opioid, placebo, no treatment, other non-pharmacological interventions (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)) or inhaled analgesia.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion and risk of bias, extracted data and checked them for accuracy. We assessed the quality of each evidence synthesis using the GRADE approach.

Main results: We included 70 studies that compared an opioid with placebo or no treatment, another opioid administered intramuscularly or intravenously or compared with TENS applied to the back. Sixty-one studies involving more than 8000 women contributed data to the review and these studies reported on 34 different comparisons; for many comparisons and outcomes only one study contributed data. All of the studies were conducted in hospital settings, on healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies at 37 to 42 weeks' gestation. We excluded studies focusing on women with pre-eclampsia or pre-existing conditions or with a compromised fetus. Overall, the evidence was graded as low- or very low-quality regarding the analgesic effect of opioids and satisfaction with analgesia; evidence was downgraded because of study design limitations, and many of the studies were underpowered to detect differences between groups and so effect estimates were imprecise. Due to the large number of different comparisons, it was not possible to present GRADE findings for every comparison.For the comparison of intramuscular pethidine (50 mg/100 mg) versus placebo, no clear differences were found in maternal satisfaction with analgesia measured during labour (number of women satisfied or very satisfied after 30 minutes: 50 women; 1 trial; risk ratio (RR) 7.00, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.38 to 128.87, very low-quality evidence), or number of women requesting an epidural (50 women; 1 trial; RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.14 to 1.78; very low-quality evidence). Pain scores (reduction in visual analogue scale (VAS) score of at least 40 mm: 50 women; 1 trial; RR 25, 95% CI 1.56 to 400, low-quality evidence) and pain measured in labour (women reporting pain relief to be "good" or "fair" within one hour of administration: 116 women; 1 trial; RR 1.75, 95% CI 1.24 to 2.47, low-quality evidence) were both reduced in the pethidine group, and fewer women requested any additional analgesia (50 women; 1 trial; RR 0.71, 95% CI 0.54 to 0.94, low-quality evidence).There was limited information on adverse effects and harm to women and babies. There were few results that clearly showed that one opioid was more effective than another. Overall, findings indicated that parenteral opioids provided some pain relief and moderate satisfaction with analgesia in labour. Opioid drugs were associated with maternal nausea, vomiting and drowsiness, although different opioid drugs were associated with different adverse effects. There was no clear evidence of adverse effects of opioids on the newborn. We did not have sufficient evidence to assess which opioid drug provided the best pain relief with the least adverse effects.

Authors' conclusions: Though most evidence is of low- or very-low quality, for healthy women with an uncomplicated pregnancy who are giving birth at 37 to 42 weeks, parenteral opioids appear to provide some relief from pain in labour but are associated with drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting in the woman. Effects on the newborn are unclear. Maternal satisfaction with opioid analgesia was largely unreported. The review needs to be examined alongside related Cochrane reviews. More research is needed to determine which analgesic intervention is most effective, and provides greatest satisfaction to women with acceptable adverse effects for mothers and their newborn.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesia, Obstetrical / methods*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Injections, Intramuscular
  • Injections, Intravenous
  • Labor Pain / drug therapy*
  • Meperidine / administration & dosage
  • Pregnancy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Meperidine