We’ve watched enough One Born Every Minute to know there’s usually a mum-to-be somewhere on a labour ward screaming in pain.
Of course, every birth is different and some are more difficult than others, but having a baby is widely recognised to be a painful experience.
But according to a new study, some women have a gene which acts as a natural epidural and stops them feeling the same level of pain.
It’s estimated that around 1 in 100 women carry this gene.
The study was a collaboration between clinicians and scientists based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH), and the University of Cambridge.
They recruited mums who had carried their first baby to full term and who had an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, but who did not request pain relief.
The scientists then carried out tests on these women, including applying heat and pressure to their arms and getting them to plunge their hands into icy water.
These results were compared to a group of women who had similar births but who required pain relief and the results showed that the first group showed higher pain thresholds for heat, cold and mechanical pressure.
Dr Michael Lee from the University’s Division of Anaesthesia said: ‘It is unusual for women to not request gas and air, or epidural for pain relief during labour, particularly when delivering for the first time.
‘When we tested these women, it was clear their pain threshold was generally much higher than it was for other women.’
Once they had these results, Professor Geoff Woods, and his colleagues at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research were able to look at the genetic code for both groups.
They found those in the test group had a higher-than-expected prevalence of a rare variant of the gene KCNG4. This gene helps to produce a protein which controls the electrical signal that flows along our nerve cells.
Dr St. John Smith, senior co-author, explained: ‘The genetic variant that we found in women who feel less pain during childbirth leads to a ‘defect’ in the formation of the switch on the nerve cells. In fact, this defect acts like a natural epidural.
‘It means it takes a much greater signal – in other words, stronger contractions during labour – to switch it on. This makes it less likely that pain signals can reach the brain.’
Senior co-author Professor Frank Reimann added: ‘Not only have we identified a genetic variant in a new player underlying different pain sensitivities but we hope this can open avenues to the development of new drugs to manage pain.’
‘This approach of studying individuals who show unexpected extremes of pain experience also may find wider application in other contexts, helping us understand how we experience pain and develop new drugs to treat it,’ said Professor David Menon, senior co-author.
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