Gate Control Theory & Labor

Nursing Knowledge

Gate Control Theory & Labor

The Gate Control Theory of Pain proposes that there is a “gate” in the spinal cord that can open or close, increasing or decreasing the transmission of pain signals to the brain. During labor, methods that close the gate can be used for nonpharmacological pain relief, including: touch, pressure, and managing the client’s emotional state. Keep reading for an overview of how to apply the Gate Control Theory for pain relief during labor!
Last updated: April 5, 2024

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What is the Gate Control Theory of Pain? Definition

The Gate Control Theory of Pain proposes that there is a “gate” in the spinal cord that can open or close to regulate the transmission of pain signals to the brain. This gate can be influenced by various factors such as touch, pressure, and emotional state. Activation of non-painful sensory input can close the gate, reducing the perception of pain, while factors like stress or anxiety can open the gate, increasing pain perception.

Gate Control Theory applied to pain relief during labor 

Nonpharmacological pain relief methods are generally considered safe and effective, without the risks associated with pharmacological interventions. 

Cognitive, sensory, and cutaneous methods can help to close the “gate” in the spinal cord and reduce the pain messages headed to the brain during labor. 

Cognitive pain relief methods in labor

Directing attention

  • Encourage positive thinking and reframing the perception of pain.
  • Encourage the use of music and support from family and partner.
  • Deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness can help focus the attention away from pain sensations, promoting a sense of calm and control.

How does a woman who feels in control of the situation during labor influence her pain?

A determining factor in a woman’s experience of pain during labor is its perceived meaning. 

Perceiving pain as meaningless or unnecessary can heighten anxiety and intensify pain sensations. Clients who perceive their pain as productive and purposeful tend to have a more positive emotional response to pain, leading to them being able to better manage and tolerate it. You can support your client by helping them see labor pain as a meaningful part of the process.  

Sensory pain relief methods in labor


Gentle massage or counter-pressure applied to areas experiencing discomfort can  stimulate sensory nerves, activating the “gate” in the spinal cord to close and inhibit pain transmission.


Scents, such as lavender or chamomile, can have calming effects, reducing stress and anxiety and diminishing the perception of pain.


Immersing in warm water can alleviate muscle tension and promote relaxation.

Cutaneous pain relief methods in labor


TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) uses low-voltage electrical currents applied to the skin via electrodes to interfere with pain signal transmission and promote the release of endorphins.

Acupressure and acupuncture 

Stimulating specific points on the body through pressure or fine needles can trigger the release of endorphins and reduce perception of pain.


Gate Control Theory & Labor

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General overview of the gate control theory and how it applies to the perception of pain during labor.

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