If you plan to give birth vaginally, then you’re likely considering whether to get an epidural. Research has found that over 70% of women choose to get an epidural, and given how painful childbirth can be, it’s not hard to understand why. They’re also proven to be very safe as well as effective.
But as with every medical procedure, there are side effects and risks associated with epidurals that you need to be aware of before making a decision. Below, we review the risks of getting an epidural and what you need to know to make the right decision for yourself.
Common Epidural Side Effects
Although epidurals are very safe, they can come with a host of side effects. Though these may be uncomfortable, the following side effects are normal and nothing to worry about. They also differ depending on the type of epidural you receive.
Some people’s skin has a reaction to the medications used during an epidural (especially opioids). You may experience itching, especially at the injection site. Usually, the doctor will either change the medication to relieve the irritation, or they can prescribe you something to alleviate the itching.
It’s not clear what causes women who receive an epidural to get a fever, but it’s a known side effect. PubMed Health reports that 23% of women with an epidural face a fever in childbirth, which is significantly higher than the 7% of who don’t.
It’s normal for your body to be sore after childbirth – even the pressure from your growing baby bump can cause a sore back. But you’re more likely to feel soreness after an epidural, especially in your lower back. This will subside in a few days.
Nausea & Vomiting
Skin irritation isn’t the only thing epidural medication can cause. You may also experience nausea and nausea from it, which can result in vomiting.
Low Blood Pressure
Healthline reports that 14% of women who get an epidural experience low blood pressure. This occurs because the epidural medication causes blood vessels to relax, thereby slowing down blood flow. This isn’t life-threatening, though it can be accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms, including light-headedness, clammy skin, faster breathing, and blurry vision.
Trouble Using Bathroom
Finally, it’s also normal to experience difficulty urinating following an epidural. This happens because the nerves in the bladder are numbed from the medication, though this resolves itself as the epidural wears off. You may require a catheter in the meantime.
Potential Epidural Complications
While the above-mentioned side effects are common with an epidural, there’s also the potential for rare complications that can have a lasting effect. Remember, complications from an epidural are rare. Epidurals are generally very safe procedures, otherwise they wouldn’t be offered in childbirth.
Rare complications from epidurals can include the following side effects.
Infection is a potential risk any time you use a needle, whether it’s to get a vaccine or epidural. It happens when the needle wasn’t sterilized properly before use. Though dangerous, most infections can be managed and treated if detected early on.
Healthline explains that a seizure is possible in the rare instance that the epidural medication is injected into the vein. Side effects of seizures can include temporary confusion, incontrollable staring, jerking movements, and loss of awareness.
According to the NHS, the needle or epidural tube can cause nerve damage, which can result in the loss of movement or feeling in parts of the body. Nerve damage can also be caused if the wrong medication is used or there’s bleeding around the spinal cord. This damage is usually temporary and gets better in a few days. In rare cases, the healing process may take a few months.
This is a very rare complication. The American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine reports that it only impacts 1 in 200,000 people who get an epidural during childbirth.
You may experience a painful headache if the needle punctures the membrane that covers the spinal cord. This can cause fluid to leak, leading to head pain. However, this is very rare. The American Society of Anesthesiologists says it only happens to 1% of women who opt for an epidural.
Often, epidural-induced headaches can be treated with normal remedies, like fluids and over-the-counter pain relievers. Your doctor may also opt to perform an epidural blood patch, which can offer relief from the headache within a few hours.
Issues With Breathing
The epidural medication can sometimes affect the muscles in the chest that are responsible for breathing. Most commonly, this can result in slowed breathing, which is often nothing to worry about. But in rare instances, it’s led to other types of breathing problems.
How To Decide If It’s Right For You
There are some situations in which your doctor won’t recommend an epidural. In such cases, getting an epidural simply won’t be an option for you. Very Well Family says this can include reasons such as:
- You’re bleeding heavily
- You have a back infection
- There’s no anesthesiologist available
- You’re on certain medications (ie blood thinners)
- Your blood work shows an epidural may be risky for you (ie a low platelet count)
- Your doctor can’t find space (often due to the growth of your back, weight, or medical issues like scoliosis)
However, if your doctor gives you the go-ahead to get an epidural, then the only person who can decide if it’s the right course of action is you. It’s important to weigh the pros and the cons.
The potential side effects and complications aren’t the only drawbacks. It may make your recovery more challenging since it increases the risk of perineal tear. It also changes your birthing experience. Not only will you be numb from the waist down during and after birth, but it can make pushing difficult.
But there are also plenty of advantages to an epidural. The biggest is that it offers relief from the pain of labor. But this gives you more opportunity to rest, which is a plus during a long labor and can provide a more positive birth experience. In doing so, it can also help you remain more alert while giving birth. Moreover, some research has found that epidurals can help reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
Please speak to your doctor for more information on epidurals and to decide if it’s right for you. Remember, whether you give birth naturally, vaginally with an epidural, or via c-section, all that matters is mom and baby are happy at the end. Childbirth is always a challenging process, no matter how your birth experience plays out.
Sources: PubMed Health, Healthline, Healthline, Mayo Clinic, NHS, ASRA, ASA, Very Well Family, NCBI, Stanford,
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