The Decision to Use or Not Use an Epidural

In the debate over unmedicated childbirth versus epidurals, it is important to be aware of actual risks to you and your infant.

Unmedicated childbirth has become the preferred method of delivery for many expectant mothers today. Plenty of women and men feel strongly about wanting to welcome their baby into the world with the least amount of medical intervention possible and believe in the inherent power a laboring mother and her partner have in managing pain. As a result, wanting an epidural or needing one has become (in some circles) almost taboo. It is important to be aware of the risks involved in using an epidural or in foregoing such use. To prevent birth injuries, medical providers need to carefully monitor the condition of both mother and baby before deciding on whether an unmedicated childbirth is safe or whether an epidural is necessary.

Changing Attitudes Toward Epidurals

An epidural is a common route for the administration of pain medication during childbirth. Getting one involves having an anesthesiologist insert a tiny catheter into the space near the nerves in your back, into which pain medication is injected. The American Society of Anesthesiologists advises that an epidural creates a band of numbness from the belly button through the upper legs, alleviating the pain a mother feels when giving birth. At the same time, it allows you to be alert, awake, and able to feel pressure, so you know when it is time to push the baby through the birth canal. Epidurals can also prove useful in the event problems develop in labor that affect either the mother or baby, requiring an emergency Cesarean section.

Epidurals were introduced in the 1970s and were quickly embraced by doctors and expectant mothers. They were credited with helping to prevent the trauma some mothers experienced as a result of extended and extremely painful delivery experiences. However, in the decades since, they have fallen out of vogue to some extent. In addition to problems with uneven numbing effects and the timing at which they are given, women became more concerned about the potential effects the pain medication administered could have on their infants. As a result, many now opt for unmedicated childbirth instead.

An epidural is a medical procedure. And with any medical procedure, good and bad outcomes can happen. You should discuss the use (or non-use) of an epidural with your doctor as part of your birth plan. You should know the pros and cons for using this medical procedure.

Risks Epidurals Pose During Childbirth

There are risks associated with epidurals, in terms of both the medication and the process of injecting the medication. Mothers may suffer headaches, bleeding at the injection site, or respiratory problems. Epidurals can also have the following detrimental effects on infants:

  • Diminished heart rate due to decreases in the mother’s blood pressure;
  • Problems with blood flow can result in oxygen deprivation;
  • Adverse effects of medications can result in infant stroke or neurological damage;
  • Numbing increases the likelihood that forceps or other potentially dangerous extraction methods will be needed.

There are also significant benefits to epidural medication administration. The key is to discuss with your physician the risks and benefits, so that you can make an informed decision.

When Birth Injuries Happen

Doctors need to carefully monitor the progress of labor to help determine when and if an epidural is appropriate. Unfortunately, errors on the part of either the obstetrician or anesthesiologist could result in serious birth injuries. When this happens, it is important to speak with an experienced birth injury attorney who can advise you on your rights in filing a claim.

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