What’s one of the first things you generally do if you smack your funny bone? Without even thinking about it, you rub your elbow. You’re using gate control to alleviate your pain - even if you don’t have any idea what that is - and gate control is an essential tool to have in your labor kit.

According to Marcy White’s book, Teaching Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting, “Gate-control is a theory that suggests that the transmission of the pain message, which travels to the brain via small diameter nerve fibers, can be modified or inhibited by stimulating large diameter nerve fibers..”  Simply put, gate control theory states that stimulating nerves that do not transmit pain signals can interfere with, or even override, signals from pain fibers. Pretty cool, right? But let’s cut to the chase:

What does this mean for your labor?

When a contraction occurs, you can use heat, cold, pressure or massage on the area you feel the most discomfort (often your belly or back). By using one of these sensory techniques, you will stimulate your large diameter nerve fibers. These in turn override small diameter nerve fibers, which transmit pain signals to the brain. The science behind this theory is crazy cool, but in the end, all you really need to remember is this:

Heat, cold, massage or pressure to an affected area = pain relief

There are a few things to keep in mind when using gate control in your labor:

  • Never use heat or cold if you have an epidural, and always have a support person check the temperature of an application before applying it because labor can majorly alter your perception of temperature!

  • If you experience back pain, counterpressure or a cold application may be the best route for you to take because these techniques are particularly helpful on bony areas.

  • When using gate control, be aware that large diameter nerves habituate quickly - that is, they grow accustomed to a technique and may stop responding to it after about 20 minutes. If this happens, just switch up what you were doing and try stimulating the large diameter fibers with a different sensory technique!

So next time you smack that funny bone, pay attention to how the sensation changes as you vigorously rub it. Experiencing this in action will help you feel even more confident during labor. And when you put gate control into action in the delivery room, give yourself a soothing pat on the back - you just rocked your labor with neuroscience!