What I Wish I Had Known (About Epidurals)
November 3, 2014
We asked women to share with us the advice they wished they had received while they were pregnant. Their comments were insightful and often a little humorous. This month’s blog post will focus on epidurals for pain relief during childbirth.
Let’s start with the basics: what is an epidural? The term epidural is actually an all-inclusive term that can refer to techniques such as epidural analgesia or epidural anaesthesia.1 An epidural is usually performed by administering medications through a catheter that is inserted into the spine. The medications (usually a combination of local anesthetics and narcotics) cause a loss of sensation and therefore decrease the amount of pain a woman experiences. The effects of the medication can be felt 10 to 20 minutes after they are first administered. The use of an epidural to lessen pain can help a woman feel more comfortable during the birth.
Although epidurals were first implemented in the early 1900’s, they were not used during childbirth until the 1940’s and did not gain popularity until the 1970’s.2 As the quote above illustrates, even by 1980 there were still concerns about the safety of an epidural. Fast forward to 2008, and now an estimated 61% of women receive an epidural.3 Many women ask for the procedure by name. The increase in epidural use over the years can be attributed to a few factors, including the advancement of fetal monitoring technology, increased safety of C-sections, and improved medications.2
The benefits of an epidural, in addition to the reduction in pain, include:4
- The ability to rest if your labor is prolonged or if you become exhausted, irritable, or fatigued.
- A more positive birth experience.
- The ability to remain alert and be an active participant in your birth.
- Medical advances that continue to make the procedure safer.
There are also risks involved with the procedure, including: 5
- Allergic reaction to the anesthesia used
- Bleeding around the spinal column
- Difficulty urinating
- Drop in blood pressure
- Infection in your spine
- Nerve damage
- Severe headache
- Seizures (this is rare)
There is also evidence that the use of an epidural can cause longer deliveries, an increased use of instruments to assist the birthing process, and an increased risk of C-section due to fetal distress.1,3 These issues are attributed to a woman’s inhibited ability to push (due to the numbing caused by the medication).
The decision to use, or not use, an epidural during birth is a choice you should make after talking to your doctor. This site and its contents are an information resource only, and are neither intended to nor should be used in replacement of your doctor’s medical guidance, recommendations, or advice.