Epidural Anesthesia – Benefits, Side Effects And Risks

Delivering your child is an arduous process. It can also be a long and drawn out one. The fact is that you don’t absolutely have to have an epidural in order to deliver your baby naturally, though it does help.

While women have been delivering babies without the benefit of epidurals for as long as there have been human beings, pain management can be a wonderful thing.

There have certainly been many women who vowed to have a completely natural delivery without resorting to an epidural only to change their mind when they are in the middle of labor.

When it is your turn, what should your decision be? In this article, we will look at the benefits, side effects and the risks of epidural anesthesia in order to help you decide.

First, let’s take a look at what an epidural is. An epidural is a form of local anesthesia. That means it numbs a specific area of your body without putting you to sleep.

The anesthesia in an epidural space is delivered via a needle inserted into the area of the lower back, below the end of the spinal cord to avoid accidental damage to the cord. They do numb the area with a topical anesthetic before inserting the needle to make it easier.

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By BruceBlausOwn work,CC BY-SA 4.0

The Benefits

There are several advantages to using an epidural during childbirth. Perhaps the most significant one is that you get to stay conscious throughout the entire time you are giving birth. This is an advantage over general anesthesia because you get to experience giving birth. It is also easier for your doctor to monitor your condition if they can ask you how you feel, and because general anesthesia carries greater risks than local anesthesia.

An epidural has a tube or catheter attached, it also allows for easier pain relief after delivery as well. It also makes things easier if you end up needing a C-section because the epidural is already in place.

Epidurals are also helpful in cases of prolonged labor. As labor drags on, there is an increasingly greater risk that you will become exhausted. That can be dangerous for you and the baby.

An epidural can give you an opportunity to rest. It is also useful when other methods of pain management are no longer helping to manage your pain.

An epidural will help you conserve your strength and continue an active role in the birth. That might lead to the best benefit of all: you have a better experience giving birth.

The Side Effects

There are some potential side effects of epidurals that you should be aware of. Some of them are minor but annoying, such as ringing in the ears, a backache, and soreness at the site where the needle is injected.

Those might a good trade-off in return for being free from the most intense pains of labor. There are other less pleasant side effects, such as nausea and difficulty urinating.

There is also the potential for a severe headache caused by leaking spinal fluid. Epidurals have also been shown to lengthen the time of labor. Experts believe that this may be because it numbs the pelvic muscles.

The Risks of Epidural Anesthesia

The potential risks of having an epidural can be serious. One of the more serious risks is a sudden drop in blood pressure. This can set off a so-called “cascade of interventions.”

Those interventions include continuous fetal monitoring and IV fluids that will prevent a drop in blood pressure.

Epidurals are also disruptive in another way. They interfere with the natural tidal wave of hormones, such as the Oxytocin that helps with contractions during delivery [1].

Because of that interference, you are far more likely to need Pitocin. Pitocin is synthetic and not the same as the natural hormones that should regulate labor.

It causes sharper contractions that come more frequently than natural ones. This might cause fetal distress, which would result in a C-section in order to deliver the baby immediately.

Your lower body will be numb for a few hours after giving birth with an epidural and you will not be able to walk unaided during that time. In some rare instances, there is lasting nerve damage from the catheter.

Finally, there have been some risks to the baby that are associated with epidurals, such as respiratory depression, fetal malpositioning, and increased heart rate. All of these are associated with the need for forceps, C-sections and the like.

You should take the time before you deliver to discuss using an epidural with your doctor. They will be able to advise you under what conditions during delivery an epidural would be your best course of action. After that, you can come up with a plan which can be implemented when the time comes for delivery.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12421171
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