Epidural Anesthesia: What Can Go Wrong?

Birth Injury

syringe and vials of medication with woman in labor as background

During labor, expectant mothers may have the option to receive epidural anesthesia. Although an epidural generally offers numerous benefits, it could also cause serious side effects for the mother or child. It’s important to understand the potential disadvantages of an epidural during labor. Discover what can go wrong with this type of anesthesia and whether epidural errors could lead to cerebral palsy.

What Is Epidural Anesthesia?

Epidural anesthesia is designed to offer pain relief, especially during labor. Once the epidural begins to take effect, it anesthetizes, creating a numb area from your abdomen to your upper thighs.

Anesthesiologists may provide an epidural at almost any point during the labor process. They typically administer it via a catheter, which they insert at the lower back. Doctors can continue to provide additional doses for as long as necessary, allowing an epidural to relieve pain no matter how long the labor lasts.

Are Epidural Anesthesia and Cerebral Palsy Linked?

A 2016 study reviewed health records from over 20,000 children born between 2004 and 2013. It ultimately determined that no statistically significant links exist between epidural anesthesia and cerebral palsy.

The potential for birth injuries during an epidural are quite low, but they remain a possibility. For example, an epidural may cause low maternal blood pressure, which in rare cases could disrupt the supply of blood and oxygen to the baby leading to fetal distress and brain injury, potentially resulting in cerebral palsy.

What Could Go Wrong with Epidural Anesthesia?

Even though this type of anesthesia is considered safe for most people, you or your baby could experience side effects of epidural anesthesia during labor. Here are some of the complications your baby could experience as a result of maternal complications from epidural anesthesia:

  • Oxygen deficiencies: If your unborn baby experiences an oxygen deficiency during labor, then serious cognitive issues could result, such as cerebral palsy.
  • Fetal heart rate abnormalities: Shortly after the anesthesiologist administers the epidural, your baby’s heart rate could change suddenly. An abnormal heart rate may signal a lack of blood and oxygen, which could lead to complications.
  • Newborn encephalopathy: If your baby experiences low oxygen during labor, your baby could suffer from newborn encephalopathy and brain damage.
  • Low Apgar scores: If your epidural contributes to a difficult birth, your baby could have low Apgar scores.
  • Breastfeeding issues: Babies who develop neonatal encephalopathy may struggle with breastfeeding.

During or after labor, you could experience these complications as a result of an epidural error:

  • Low blood pressure: When your blood pressure lowers suddenly, your baby’s may also decrease, which has the potential to lead to more serious complications or birth injuries.
  • Nausea: Although nausea isn’t common with epidural anesthesia, a low blood pressure may cause you to feel sick to your stomach.
  • Lower back pain: Many women also experience mild pain around the area where the anesthesiologist inserted the needle and catheter. You can usually expect any pain to dissipate within a few days of the epidural, as the process doesn’t normally cause long-lasting soreness. If it does, talk with your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Difficulty urinating: Because epidural anesthesia causes numbness, you might have trouble urinating. You may need a urinary catheter until the delivery process is finished.
  • Severe headaches: Although epidurals don’t usually cause headaches, about 1% of women experience severe head pain due to leaking spinal fluid. If the epidural needle pierces the spinal cord covering, you could have a serious headache lasting several days.
  • Serious infections: In some rare cases, more serious epidural complications during labor could occur. You could develop an infection in the skin where the catheter was placed. In severe cases, the infection could spread and require emergency intervention.
  • Bleeding: The area where the anesthesiologist placed the catheter can also bleed extensively. In serious cases, this bleeding could apply pressure to the spinal cord, leading to additional complications.
  • Nerve damage: If you experienced complications from an epidural, , you could have experienced temporary or permanent nerve damage resulting in an isolated area of numbness or permanent loss of feeling in an area, such as your leg.

If you believe that you experienced complications from an epidural that led to a birth injury for your child, you may have a case. The knowledgeable attorneys at Janet, Janet & Suggs have helped families like yours with medical malpractice cases for 40 years. With our extensive experience, we can help you seek your rightful compensation. Contact us today and take the first step toward getting the justice you deserve.



Reviewed by:
Trish Fletcher, MS, BSN, CRNP, NNP-BC, ALNC
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner | Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant

Tricia is a dedicated, focused, Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. Her strong clinical and critical thinking skills, paired with expertise caring for neonates in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ensures meticulous medical records review. READ FULL BIO

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