Is An Epidural Safe?

Questions on Epidurals
How Safe Are Epidurals?

Statistics show that nearly 75 percent of women who give birth in America choose to have an epidural injection (image), the remaining choosing a natural birth. The rise in popularity of epidurals in recent years is linked to their relative safety record and successful pain relief results. So in answer to the question, yes, epidurals are considered relatively safe. One recent study by Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 21 clinical trials involving more than 6,500 births. They reported no increase in C-section rates among women who took an epidural anesthesia compared to those who did not. They did find however that those who took epidurals spent on average 15 minutes more in the second stage of labor (the pushing part). These women were also 18 percent more likely to need the drug pitocin, to artificially speed up the process (labor induction). The researchers also compared the well-being of the babies born and found no difference between the babies born to mothers who took an epidural than those who did not.

Bottom Line: Most doctors say that an epidural will reduce the amount of pain a woman feels during delivery and childbirth; and that the medication is safe for both mother and child. Anecdotally many women complain of severe headaches and/or drowsiness for days after an epidural. Some of those who go on to experience a drug-free home birth in subsequent pregnancies, say that while it hurt more, they felt much better immediately afterwards. Many feel that waterbirths help to reduce the pain of childbirth naturally. See also, is a home birth safe?

When Should An Epidural NOT Be Given?
• Your cervix is less than 4cm dilated. You still need to wait.
• If the epidural space, the tiny area where the needle needs to be inserted, cannot be located by the physician.
• You are hemorrhaging.
• You are taking blood thinners or antiplatelets for an ongoing medical condition.
• If you have a low blood platelet count or a blood infection.
• If labor is moving so fast that there is not enough time to prepare and administer the drug.

Interesting Epidural Risk Statistics
As an epidural is an injection into the spine, some women may worry about the chance of something going wrong in this delicate area. Rest assured, the risk of paralysis (paraplegia) is very, very rare - statistically it happens in 1 in every 250,000 cases. More common is an accidental puncture (1 in 100 cases) where the doctor tries to insert the needle in the epidural space, a tiny area about 3-5mm deep, but accidentally misses it. This can lead to the severe headaches we discussed above which can last for several days.

Note: An epidural cannot be given in birthing centers or during a home birth (image). They require hospitalization.

• Need more information about childbirth? See: Guide To Childbirth
• Got another question? See: Womens Health Questions

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