The epidural is the most common form of pain management for laboring women in America. A catheter is inserted into the epidural space in the spinal canal (just outside of the spinal cord). Medication is then delivered intravenously through the catheter. This blocks pain signals from the lower part of the body to the brain thereby reducing your awareness of pain. Many women report feeling almost nothing below their hips while the epidural is in place. Pain relief usually begins within 10-20 minutes and can last as long as necessary with more injections of medication into the catheter.
Just because many women use the epidural, doesn’t mean it is free of risks. The medications that may be used include both anesthetics such as Lidocaine, Bupivacaine, Ropivacaine, and Chloroprocaine and Opioids including Morphine, Fentanyl, Sufentanil, and Pethidine. The most common risks to the epidural include slowed/stalled labor, increased risk of fetal cardiovascular and pulmonary complications, the newborn being lethargic and/or having latch difficulties when initiating breastfeeding, an increased chance of having an instrumental delivery (vacuum or forceps), or a c-section. Mothers may also experience headaches, fever, and blood pressure problems.
There are a number of studies that suggest the epidural is relatively safe, however there is no way to be sure that the effects of an epidural on the laboring mother are not transferred in some way to the baby. Even the studies that claim there are no risks to the baby are ignoring the basic fact that the mother and baby are in a symbiotic relationship. If maternal stress, diet, and exercise can affect an unborn baby, how is it that potent medications such as opioids won’t impact the baby in some way? This article is a great read for those of you interested in reading more about the risks.
Further Reading on Epidurals: