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What You Need to Know About Epidural Anesthesia

Let’s face it; while having a baby might be a wonderful and rewarding experience, childbirth and labor tend to be more of a grueling and less-than-thrilling process. That is why many women opt for pain killers and anesthetics during childbirth, saving themselves the pain of what could be a 15-hour labor, if not longer. 

One of the more commonly used anesthetics is epidural anesthesia, but before you decide on whether you’d like to ask your doctor to use it, take a moment to learn more about what it is and what you should expect from it.

The Basics
A popular form of regional anesthesia, epidural anesthesia is commonly used during labor to alleviate pain in the lower part of the body while leaving the mother conscious and alert. It is applied by inserting a very thin catheter into the epidural space which surrounds the spinal cord in the lower back, numbing the nerves from the uterus to the birth passage without hindering labor. 

This allows for a relatively pain-free labor experience whilst allowing the mother to feel the need to push. The extent of the numbness depends on the type of anesthesia use and its dosage, and it should only be administered by a qualified specialist.

The Process
While not usually painful, the epidural injection can be a bit uncomfortable when being inserted. The anesthesiologist administering the injection will first apply local anesthetic on your lower back before injecting the epidural to avoid causing pain. Discomfort might be experienced while the needle and tube are being inserted. 

It takes around 10-20 minutes for the epidural to fully take effect, and once it does, your legs will feel heavy and numb, which is why you will need to stay in bed. Since the nerves in your bladder will also be numbed, a catheter might need to be passed into your bladder to drain the urine if your labor continues for more than a few hours. Once your baby is born, the anesthesia will wear off on its own in 1-2 hours.

Before getting an epidural, your doctor will examine your medical history to determine whether it is safe to use the anesthetic. In general, people who take blood thinners or have back problems, blood clotting problems, conditions that affect the nervous system, heart disorders, or allergies to medications should not be given epidurals.

The Pros

• It provides pain relief in prolonged labor, which results in a more positive birth experience.
• It is a relatively safe type of medication, requires only a small dosage to gain the needed results, and is easy to administer.
• It does not cause drowsiness before or after birth, which enables the mother to greet her baby as soon as it is born.
• It is considered safer for the baby as the anesthetic is injected into the spine and barely reaches the bloodstream, which is not the case with most other anesthetics.
• The dosage can be quickly adjusted and increased if the need for a C-section suddenly arises.

The Cons

• It can slow down labor; however this can be avoided by waiting until the cervix is at 4cm before taking the epidural, or remedied by taking medicine such as Pitocin to help speed up labor.
• May cause shivering, ringing of the ears, backache, soreness where the needle is inserted, nausea, or difficulty urinating.
• In some cases it can make pushing more difficult, which will result the need for assisted delivery such as the use of forceps to pull the baby through the birth canal or even a C-section.
• In very rare cases, it can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, seizures, severe headaches, and nerve damage where the catheter was inserted.
• Nausea and vomiting can be side effects of an epidural anesthesia.