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We randomly allocated 93 women in early active labour and requesting epidural analgesia to receive either epidural (n = 48) or combined spinal-epidural analgesia (n = 45). For epidural analgesia 15 ml of bupivacaine 0.1% with 75 μg of fentanyl were injected into the epidural space. For combined spinal-epidural analgesia 1 ml of bupivacaine 0.25% with 25 μg of fentanyl were injected into the subarachnoid space. For both groups subsequent top-ups of 10 ml of bupivacaine 0.1% with fentanyl 20 μg were given using a lightweight patient-controlled epidural analgesia (PCEA) pump with a lockout time of 30 min. We assessed analgesia and the degree of motor blockade and found no significant differences in pain or maternal satisfaction scores between the two groups. The time to first top-up was significantly longer in the epidural group than in the CSE group (p = 0.01). The combined spinal-epidural group had significantly greater motor blockade at 30 min than the epidural group (p = 0.01), but there was no difference after this. The PCEA machine failed completely twice and temporarily many times. We conclude that the combined spinal-epidural technique confers no advantages in early active labour. Also, a lightweight PCEA pump needs to be more reliable before we can recommend its use.