Risks And Benefits Of Epidural Anesthesia

March 16, 2008

There is no debate that to the extent that a woman in labor can avoid interventions and medication, the better off she and her baby will be. All interventions carry with them some amount of risk. However, sometimes a certain amount of risk can be tolerated. If the benefits of the intervention outweigh the risks, then an intervention should be employed.  This decision should be made with maximum knowledge of the risks and benefits.

Benefits of the Epidural

As a form of pain relief for labor, epidural anesthesia is considered to be a safe and efficacious alternative. There is no question that in comparison with general anesthesia, epidurals appear to be very safe. Since epidurals are administered locally, there is very little chance that the baby will be exposed to any of the medication. Often the epidural allows the laboring woman to maintain muscle power in her legs, and the sensation of pressure in her perineum. This maintenance of sensation helps her to push her baby out in a natural way. Hopefully, forceps or an episiotomy will not be needed. However, if an episiotomy is necessary, no additional pain medication is needed.

Are Epidurals Safer than a "spinal"

If an epidural is done properly, there should be no severe headache afterwards. Headaches are much more common after "spinal block" anesthesia. Spinal blocks are similar to epidurals. The pain-killer is given in smaller doses and to a different part of the spinal column. When spinals are given, it sometimes happens that a small amount of the cerebrospinal fluid leaks out, which can lead to severe headaches. These headaches can sometimes be as bad or even worse than the labor itself.

Epidurals can sometimes help labor progress

Sometimes a woman in labor can become so tired and tense from the pain she is experiencing that she doesn't allow her body to relax enough to deliver the baby. When the pain of labor has been alleviated, very often the woman can settle down and allow her body to do what it needs to do.

Risks of the Epidural

It is very common for blood pressure to drop after the epidural has been given. If this happens, fluids and sometimes other medications will need to be administerd to stabilize the blood pressure. The woman's blood pressure should be carefully monitored throughout labor. Loss of sensation can cause impairmant of the feeling to urinate. This can lead to urine retention and catheterization to relieve bladder pressure. Some studies indicate that labor also can be prolonged due to epidurals.

In general, epidurals are considered to be safe for mothers and babies. If epidurals are administered properly, and the vital signs of the mother and baby are carefully monitored, a positive outcome for mother and baby can be expected.

For more information about epidurals, read the articles entitled "Understanding Epidurals" and "Epidural Anasthesia".

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