When most women go into the hospital to have a baby, one of the common medications that’s administered is an epidural. You’ll hear some women talking about how much they want to have an epidural, so that they won’t feel anything when their child is born. These women don’t seem to think about what epidural anesthesia might be doing to their bodies and the bodies of their unborn babies.
Epidurals are a kind of regional anesthesia. A catheter is placed into the epidural space, the area outside the membrane called the dura mater. This membrane is the outer layer of the spinal cord. Essentially, the catheter is being put directly into the spine, between the vertebrae and the spinal cord. This space contains spinal nerve roots, tissue, small arteries, and a network of important large blood vessels with thin walls. Epidural injections use a fairly large gauge needle, and inject a solution of anesthetic directly into the mother’s back.
Epidurals are old technology. They were tried as early as 1901, but unsuccessful until 1921. Use of epidurals began in the United States by 1935, and by the late 1960s they were common. Like many of the big scientific developments of the 20th century, the epidural looked like a great thing at first. However, it was soon found out that there were additional side effects to this kind of anesthesia, and women began to wonder if it was good to not feel anything during childbirth. Natural childbirth has been growing in popularity since the late 1960s. However, the epidural is still standard in hospitals.
The medical establishment has convinced most women that the pain of childbirth will be impossible to put up with unless they have an epidural. Women who go without an epidural are often called martyrs or considered crazy for wanting to experience natural childbirth. Have modern women somehow lost the ability to have babies naturally? Or are we just being told that we can’t have a natural childbirth by doctors and medical professionals who assume an epidural is part of the birthing package? So many women have this kind of anesthesia today that hospitals include it in billing as a matter of course if a woman has given birth.
Epidural risks for both mother and baby include hypotension, urinary retention, incontinence, leg paralysis, loss of feeling in your arms and legs, headaches and backaches, septic meningitis, allergic reactions, slowed breathing, nausea, vomiting, and even seizures.
What we aren’t told is that with an epidural, as with every kind of medication, there are some risks. Epidurals contain narcotics. At one point, doctors believed that the medication used in an epidural did not reach the baby during the birthing process. This is now known to be false, but the epidural is still used. Epidural risks for both mother and baby include hypotension, urinary retention, incontinence, leg paralysis, loss of feeling in your arms and legs, headaches and backaches, septic meningitis, allergic reactions, slowed breathing, nausea, vomiting, and even seizures. Some of these epidural risks only happen in extreme cases, but others are relatively common.
Epidurals can cause labor to take longer and increase the need for the doctor to use forceps in the delivery. It’s also possible for the catheter to literally break off in the mother’s spine, which requires surgery. Spinal headache from epidural catheters is a routine and common epidural risk, which can last for one to ten days after birth. Compare this with a natural childbirth, where the pain is over once the baby and placenta have been delivered. No one wants to spend the first week of her baby’s life flattened with a severe headache caused by medication that was designed to prevent pain.
In addition to the above epidural risks, there is some chance that the baby will receive an overdose of narcotics and painkillers. Local anesthetic easily crosses into the placenta and is absorbed by the infant. The medications used in an epidural are determined by the weight of the mother, which is a lot more than the weight of her baby. Immediately after birth, the baby must metabolize these drugs. Babies are born with incompletely developed livers, meaning that babies whose mothers took epidurals have a much higher risk of newborn jaundice. Cases of jaundice are also a lot worse when the baby has been exposed to drugs in the womb. You don’t take drugs up until you give birth – why should you start now?
Even the Physician’s Desk Reference acknowledges that there have been no good studies done on the use of the drugs found in an epidural on women who are giving birth, and that it’s unknown to doctors whether they cause harm to the baby. Babies born to mothers who have had an epidural show worse motor skills and orientation abilities in the first month. The drugs are literally giving them a slow start. This has been known as long ago as 1979, but this knowledge has had no effect on the frequency of women getting epidurals.
Women need to be able to make an informed choice when they give birth. As well as the standard epidural, they should know about natural childbirth options that will make their birthing process easier. They should understand that birthing is an active process that they should participate in, and that there are epidural risks if they choose to have this anesthetic. The main cause of pain in women giving birth is fear and tension. Relaxation makes a natural childbirth much more possible. Adrenaline is a mother’s worst enemy when it comes to giving birth. Hospital environments contribute to fear and tension with their cold sterility. Women can benefit from being attended by friends and family while they give birth, to make them more comfortable.
If you’re going to give birth soon, be sure to make an informed choice about how your baby comes into the world. Women do not become mothers passively, without being able to feel what is happening inside their body. For many women, the risks of an epidural outweigh the dubious benefits, and they choose to have a natural childbirth. If you’re concerned about epidural risks, research everything and know what you want when your baby is born.