Adore-phin highs

I’ve been thinking a lot about this twaddle I hear and read all the time about the “endorphin-high” you get when you push a baby out of your va-jay-jay without any pain medication.

The theory is that, in response to pain, your body produces endorphins and natural opioid-like substances which act on your brain and spinal cord to somewhat mitigate the amount of discomfort you feel and that, as soon as the pain goes away (the baby pops out), you are left with an imbalance between pain and endorphins.  Since the endorphins don’t have pain to act against anymore, you get a “high.”  If you get an epidural, some claim, you’ll miss out on this “high.”

Let’s leave for a moment the completely abhorrent idea that being “high” is a good thing (try explaining that to your teenagers one day…endorphins are natural…but so are marijuana, cocaine, morphine and heroine.)

I experienced 2.5 “highs” during my labour and delivery and I had an epidural.

How is this possible?  Let me explain…

Before the epidural blocked the pain of my contractions, I also had natural endorphins floating around my central nervous system to counteract them.  Once the epi blocked all that contraction pain, I had an imbalance between pain and endorphins and I got an endorphin high.  I remember grinning stupidly at the anesthesiologist, the nurse the OB and my husband.  I also might have been reacting to the small amount of opioid in the epidural but I don’t think that’s the entire reason for my blissed-out feeling.  I give that amount of opioid to patients all the time (and more!) as premedication prior to induction of general anesthesia and I don’t see that many goofy grins.

The second “high” I felt was right when my son was placed on my chest.  That was an “adore-phin” high, indeed.  Wow.  Double-wow.  Enough said.

I might have felt “high” at that point too in that way that you feel high after a hard workout.  I pushed for 2.5 hours.  It was hard.  Physical exertion also produces endorphins and chemicals that lead to a feeling of well-being.

I had a second degree tear from a semi-emergent vacuum extraction and while they were stitching it up, I noticed something…um interesting.  See, the OB was using a retractor, and his hand rested, completely unintentionally and briefly, on my clitoris….and I could feel it.

Why could I feel it when being numbed from an epidural?  One of the tricks of the NCB movement is to try to convince women that birth can be orgasmic and with an epidural they will miss out on the enjoyable sexual parts of labour and delivery.  I know…not everyone wants to feel sexual in front of a bunch of strangers…but anyway.  NCB people must not understand physiology or epidurals.  For one, an epidural is not very good at freezing the sacral nerve roots.  Those are the ones that provide sensation to the perineum.  Lots of women with a working epidural will still feel perineal stretching and sometimes pain down there.  I received local anesthetic before they started stitching because the OBs know an epidural is often inadequate “down there.”

The second reason is that orgasmic and pleasurable feelings are partially carried by the parasympathetic nervous system and travel up the vagus nerve.  A nerve that originates in the head and bypasses the spinal cord completely.  This nerve is the reason that some para- and quadriplegics can experience orgasms.

If birth can, indeed, be orgasmic, then it can be orgasmic with an epidural.

Physiology tells us so.  Experience with people with spinal cord injury tells us so.

Take that Ina May!

You can be just as high with an epidural as those NCB people can be without one…and you do not have to go through hours of pain to get there either.

Take that Ricki Lake!


Addendum:  I’ve been unable to find any actual evidence (peer-reviewed publications or even case reports) that orgasms can happen during labour and delivery on Pubmed.  Not only does Pubmed cover all the hardcore scientific peer-reviewed journals, but it also includes all the crunchy midwife journals as well.  Curious, no?  Is this truth or heresy?



  1. Michelle · · Reply

    I would submit, after having one unmedicated delivery and one medically necessary C-section, that part of that high was adrenaline, not endorphin. As a result, I barely slept for 3 days after my natural birth, and was so frazzled that I was a mess. I was in much better (mental) shape after the C-section, despite the high risk nature of it. In the end, I wish I’d had an epidural with the first.

    1. Michelle,

      I think you’ve illustrated something really nicely…and that is that all women have birth experiences that are different. There is no magic recipe for a great birth…even if things go according to the birth plan…even if you’ve decided to wing it and even if you make what seem like the best decisions you could have made based on the information you had at the time…you can still be left with a birth experience and post-partum experience that isn’t all rainbows and fairy dust…that is difficult to process intellectually and emotionally.

      I think that is normal and I’m surprised we don’t talk about this more. I’m surprised that women try to sell other women this lie that birth is supposed to be amazing and transformative and that if you experience anything else something went wrong. I think birth can be confusing and difficult to process. I think early parenthood can be confusing and difficult to process. I wish society would accept a broader range of reactions as “normal”.

      1. Michelle · · Reply

        I was so fortunate with my first- everything was just charmed. On the scale, it was probably a fairly normal, perhaps slightly long prodromal/early stage labor for a primip, which means about a day to day and a half of contracting (not active, but damn uncomfortable) and not being able to eat/drink well. I was dehydrated and sick by the time we got to the hospital, but was physically very strong.

        For a first labor, I suppose I did spectacularly well. The problem is, if that was good, then HOLY CRAP bad must be horrifying. In retrospect, I would have been in better shape (hydrated, morale, rested) had I had an epidural, and it would have been much easier on my husband, who had to watch me go through all that pain and exhaustion.

        Since my second was anterior previa and transverse, we knew we were heading to the OR early on, but during the weeks prior to that point, I nervously negotiated with myself about pain management, and decided that I could not and would not put my husband through that again, and I could not afford to be emotionally and physically unavailable to my son for as long as a week or more to deal with the mental as well as physical exhaustion. They deserved to have ME, and to have me in control of myself so I could be there for them.

        Birth is transformative, just not the way they paint it.

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