What Are Sterile Water Injections for Labor Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 21, 2022
5 min read

If you’re within the last few months of your pregnancy, you might be in the process of creating your birth plan. A birth plan is a list of your wishes for the childbirth experience that can include whether you desire pain medication, whether you want skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivering your baby, and whether you want family members in the room during your delivery or just your partner. 

Having sterile water injected under your skin isn’t a well-known treatment for labor pain, and it might not be on your radar at all — but because at least 30% of women deal with extreme back pain during labor, you might wish to include this option in your natural birth plan. Learn more about sterile water injections and how they might provide a little-known, medication-free option for lower back pain during the labor process.

Sterile water injection is exactly what it sounds like: Clean water that's free of contaminants and harmful additives is safely injected under a person’s skin by a doctor or trained technician. It’s extremely important to remember that vials of sterile water are sold for this purpose and used with sterile syringes, needles, and other professional gear found in a hospital or medical clinic. 

It's worth noting that even though it’s just water, sterile water is considered a medical treatment because it has a pain-relieving quality when injected. Sterile water is usually injected intradermally — into the skin — not into veins, muscles, or other parts of the body.

You can’t make medical-grade sterile water and inject yourself at home. Doing so would be dangerous for you and your baby because it’s very difficult to make sure that you’ve properly sterilized the equipment and that you’re using the right type of water. Bring up this treatment to your doctor if you’re interested in pursuing it in a safe, medical setting.

Sterile water injections are considered safe for most women when administered in a medical setting like a hospital or birthing clinic. You can opt for sterile water alone to relieve your back pain as you labor, or you can combine this treatment with other medication-free pain relief methods if you wish to avoid medicine during your birth. 

You might also use sterile water first to determine how much of your back pain it will relieve. Some women will be able to give birth with few to no pain relief interventions, while others might need more medical interventions in labor pain management as things progress.

Effect on the laboring mother. Sterile water is injected under the skin in the lumbar area of your back (the lowest section of your back near your tailbone). It might burn or tingle at first, but this is temporary. 

Effect on the baby. Sterile water, when injected the right way, shouldn’t have an effect on the unborn baby. In a study performed on 587 women who received sterile water injections during their labor, researchers found that sterile water is a good form of short-term pain relief (it reduced their pain by 30% to 50% for up to 90 minutes after the injection) but that it didn’t have an effect on the outcome of the birth or whether or not the process ended with a C-section. In other words, if you’re trying to avoid undergoing a C-section or experiencing labor pain in general, sterile water isn’t a magic bullet.

Lower back pain in pregnancy. This is the most widely studied application of sterile water injections during labor. Despite what many women are taught about pregnancy, birth, and labor, labor pains don’t necessarily occur in or near the uterus. A woman might only have excruciating lower back pain instead of abdominal pain at the start of her labor.

Unlike “front” labor, back labor pains can persist even when you’re not having a contraction and can be much more painful than uterine contractions. Many experts think that back labor begins when the baby’s head makes contact with or presses on your lower spine. It’s possible, in some cases, to turn the baby around so this isn’t the case. You should only rotate an unborn baby under professional supervision and not on your own at home. Sometimes, the baby rotates independently during the last stages of labor — but you might need pain relief like a sterile water injection to manage the pain until this point.

The desire for medication-free birth. A medication-free birth plan may sound appealing before you go into labor. Some women opt for an epidural once the first big contractions hit, while others try various medication-free options, like changing positions, using birthing equipment, and practicing breathing techniques, to manage their pain. Sterile water injections offer a natural, safe treatment that can be performed quickly and without high risk to the baby and mother.

Pros. If you wish for a natural birth or a low-medication birth, having a sterile water injection for labor in your birth plan as an option for pain management can be a good idea. Sterile water injections are considered safe for most women, and they can do a good job of relieving back pain for short periods of time.

Cons. Sterile water is typically only injected into the back for labor, and these injections haven’t been studied for use in other locations during childbirth. Though up to one-third of women experience back labor, your lower back might not be the location of your most severe labor pains. You might not have back labor at all. Relying on a sterile water injection as your only pain relief option can backfire in this case. 

If you’re concerned about coping with labor pain involved in childbirth, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with other methods of pain management during labor even if you wish to have a medication-free birth. Talk to your doctor or midwife about which options would be the best and safest for your body as well as your baby’s health.