Waking Up to Possible Side Effects of Epidurals and Other Types of Regional Anesthesia
Giving birth to your baby is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ll have in your lifetime. Of course, it might be hard to remember that while you’re going through the delivery. But unlike previous eras, modern mothers are fortunate to have the option of an epidural—the pain-numbing anesthetic that helps make childbirth much more bearable. In fact, one study showed that 71% of pregnant women in 2018 opted for this type of anesthesia during their delivery.
Although epidurals are generally considered a safe practice in the delivery room, they—like all anesthesia—can carry the risk of severe side effects. We’ve rounded up both the common and the rare side effects associated with epidurals and other types of regional anesthesia so that you can be prepared to decide which may be best for you when it is your time to bring new life into the world.
Side Effects of an Epidural
An epidural, also known as an epidural block or epidural analgesia, is the most commonly used form of pain relief during childbirth for women in the United States, and its use combines two forms of pain management:
- Analgesia: Pain management that provides pain reduction without the loss of consciousness or sensation
- Anesthetic: Pain reduction that causes numbness or a lack of physical sensation, including loss of consciousness
Like other analgesics, the epidural is used to block pain signals before they even reach your brain so that you don’t fully feel the pains of labor. The epidural procedure places a small catheter in the spine that allows the continued injection of medication to help reduce pain. Once injections are administered, you may have some temporary loss of feeling below the waist, but an epidural is not intended to cause a complete loss of feeling. This is what allows mothers to be able to push and deliver their babies when it’s time.
Although epidurals do make childbirth much less painful than a natural delivery, they’re not completely risk-free. Some of the most common side effects they cause include:
- Low blood pressure
- Temporary difficulty urinating
In addition, there are some more serious side effects associated with an epidural, including leaking spinal fluid. While they’re considered to be very rare, it’s important to consider the worst-case scenarios so that you can decide what’s best for you and your baby. Those serious but rare side effects include:
- Breathing problems. In rare cases, opioids, especially when administered to the spine, can cause slow breathing or unexpected breathing difficulties, which may arise hours after birth and may progress to have serious effects.
- Infection. Any time the skin is opened for an injection or surgery, there is a risk of infection in or around the puncture site. Should you experience an infection of the skin near the epidural tube, antibiotics—or emergency surgery in extreme cases—will ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.
- Nerve damage. In very rare cases, the epidural needle can hit a nerve, resulting in temporary or permanent loss of feeling in your lower body. The most common symptom is a numbness in a small area of the back that still maintains normal movement and strength. Generally, the numbness disappears within a few days or weeks, sometimes taking up to several months. However, in extremely rare cases, the nerve damage is permanent.
- Seizure. In the very unlikely case that the pain medication seeps into your veins, an epidural can trigger a seizure.
Side Effects of Other Regional Anesthesia
Regional anesthesia (also known as nerve blocks) is used to numb a part of your body before, during or after surgical procedures, from orthopedic to oral surgery. It can significantly reduce your pain and discomfort, and it often includes a faster recovery time than general anesthesia. However, as with any other medical or surgical treatment, it has the potential to result in side effects, including:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Allergic reaction to the local anesthetic
OBGYNs and anesthesiologists should always inform their patients about any associated risks before opting for a particular anesthesia. Patient history is crucial in the use of anesthetic, as is prospering monitoring during and after of both mother and baby. This monitoring can help avoid birth injuries or maternal injuries like hypotension, urinary retention, or low blood sugar. In the event that you do experience a dangerous side effect, your physician should respond with immediate treatment.
A study published in 2012 found that deliveries where the woman received an epidural were three times more likely to require the use of instruments like forceps or a vacuum. The specific risks of epidurals and local anesthesia vary depending on the procedure and patient, but unfortunately those negative effects can at times be prevented by doctors upholding the standard of care.
Looking for a Birth Injury Law Firm?
If you’re concerned about the prenatal medical care you received from your OBGYN or other practitioner, or you have legal questions, you are not alone. The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs have been helping families across the US with their birth injury claims for more than 40 years. Contact JJS today for a free, no-obligation consultation to learn more about your rights and legal options.
William R. “Topper” Cramer, RN, MBA, MS, CCRN, CFRN, EMT-P
Legal Nurse Consultant | Nurse Paralegal
Topper has been involved in emergency, transport, and critical care medicine since 1978 when he became an EMT in high school. A United States Air Force veteran, he remains active as a pre-hospital RN/paramedic, certified flight nurse, and critical care nurse. In addition to his professional role as a nurse consultant/nurse paralegal, he is the Chief of Operations at Walkersville Volunteer Rescue in Frederick County, Maryland. READ FULL BIO