Pain management is an important point of discussion for pregnant women. The appropriate use of medication can improve the birth experience. In many cases, pain is controlled with an epidural.

What Is an Epidural?

An epidural is a type of anesthetic that affects a localized area of the body. During labor, the regional anesthetic of the epidural diminishes pain in the pelvic area.

How Is Medication Delivered?

An epidural involves the insertion of a small tube into the epidural space, the area of tissue between the spinal column. Medication travels from a discreetly placed bag positioned near the birthing bed through the tube. While the tube is being inserted, it is necessary to lean forward and sit or lie very still. This position opens the space in which the tube will sit during delivery.

Once the epidural is in place, the anesthesiologist will administer medication that will significantly decrease sensation to the lower abdominal area. Medication may be administered as an initial injection with “top-up” as needed, or it may be delivered as a continuous infusion.

Does an Epidural Hurt?

As much as a woman’s body goes through during labor, the idea of an epidural injection can be very unsettling. Rest assured that this process is conducted with a great deal of gentleness and precision. Most women do not even notice the initial prick of the tiny needle. What may be felt is a slight burning sensation as the medication is introduced into the body. This side effect lasts only a few seconds before the numbing effect occurs.

What Benefits Does an Epidural Offer?

  • Pain is significantly reduced with this method of management.
  • Localized anesthetic block does not affect mental clarity. This means the birth experience is not diminished by grogginess.
  • Once inserted, the epidural can be enhanced with stronger anesthetic should an unexpected cesarean become necessary.

Are There Disadvantages to Epidural Anesthetic?

There can be.

  • Shivering or fever may occur, causing fetal distress. Additional medication may be recommended to control mother’s and baby’s temperature.
  • The regional anesthetic may not provide sufficient pain relief for every woman. Approximately 1 in 8 deliveries needs additional pain relief.
  • Having an epidural means that movements will be limited. No walking, due to lower extremity weakness.
  • A catheter may need to be inserted to facilitate urination, as the muscles that control the bladder may be affected by the anesthetic.
  • In some cases, it can take 30 to 40 minutes for the epidural to take full effect.
  • Increased monitoring is typically necessary after an epidural and each top-up of medication.
  • There is a very small risk that nerves will be damaged by the epidural, causing leg numbness or tingling. In the rare instance that damage occurs, side effects are typically temporary. Permanent side effects occur in only one of approximately 24,000 epidurals.

Is the Baby Affected by Regional Anesthesia?

Research suggests that epidurals are safe for mothers and babies, but that medication is not without the risk of certain side effects. There is a chance that blood pressure will drop after an epidural, so a small IV will be set up in the arm or hand to facilitate administration of medication or fluids, should that become necessary. Also, some studies suggest that fetal movement and heart rate may become depressed as a result of anesthetic. The longer labor continues, the greater this risk. If baby becomes lethargic as a result of anesthetic, latching on for breastfeeding may be inhibited.

When Is an Epidural Given?

Usually, epidurals are given at the onset of active labor, but the appropriate time for administration is determined from patient to patient.

Will Local Anesthetic Inhibit My Ability to Push?

As the medication in the epidural relaxes pain sensations from the uterus and abdominal muscles, the sensation to push may be diminished. This does not necessarily increase the chance that a cesarean may be needed. Your provider and you will discuss management of your options as your needs arise.

Pain management is an important aspect of a healthy, memorable delivery. Contact Grace Obstetrics and Gynecology for more information on epidurals and other techniques used to improve comfort during labor and delivery.

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