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Childbirth has got to be one of the most life-changing and rewarding experiences of becoming a mom.
When you carry your baby in your arms, you immediately forget (usually) the extreme pain you just passed through because labor is indeed a painful and challenging process. Researching the pros and cons of an epidural may be just what you need to make an informed decision for reliable pain management during labor and delivery.
This blog post will outline the pros and cons of using an epidural during labor, helping you make an informed decision about your birthing plan.
But first, a positive epidural birth story by my friend Elizabeth
Elizabeth and I were work colleagues many years ago. She informed me recently that she was expecting her first child. Even though she felt nervous because of the many stories about labor pains and natural delivery, she was willing to try natural childbirth. So Elizabeth researched the pros and cons of an epidural and decided that she wanted to have epidural analgesia to help manage the physical discomfort.
When the day of delivery arrived, her doctor offered her an epidural, and she decided to go for it. The process was quick, and she hardly felt anything. Soon after the epidural block, she started to feel much more comfortable. As her labor progressed, she did not have to worry about pain and could focus on the joy of meeting her baby. After a few pushes, her beautiful baby was born.
Elizabeth had a smooth and relatively painless delivery, and she could enjoy the first moments of motherhood without the distraction of pain, thanks to epidural analgesia.
A bit about labor
Babies are adorable little beings, but bringing them into the world requires work (labor), and it can be painful for many women.
Labor has been described as the most severe pain experienced by most women. 60% of pregnant women described their pain as severe or extremely severe.
Labor pain happens with the uterus contracting to move the baby down the birth canal and eventually out of your body.
Some women have a high threshold for pain, while others have a low one. This is why labor pain relief is often necessary during natural birth. Other medical procedures exist, such as natural techniques – breathing exercises, massage, and interventions for an unmedicated delivery. But epidural anesthesia has been described as a gold standard.
What is an epidural?
An epidural is a way to deliver a pain medication that can help relieve pain during natural birth. It is like getting a numbing medicine in your back that blocks pain signals from your body to your brain. The epidural needle goes into the space around your spinal cord filled with spinal fluid, called the epidural space. The pain medication numbs the nerves that transmit pain signals from only the lower body to your brain, so you do not feel as much pain.
How is it administered?
The shot is usually given in your lower back during labor. You may be able to move your legs and feel some pressure, but the pain should be much less intense. The epidural can also be used for partial anesthesia if you need a C-section.
Since the effects of a single injection do not always last for the entire labor, a thin tube, called an epidural catheter, is often inserted and attached to your back. This allows the anesthesiologist to give you more pain medication if needed. The catheter can be connected to a pump that automatically dispenses small amounts of pain medications, or you can press a button to give yourself more if you need it.
A small tube called a cannula is usually placed in your arm so that a drip can be attached to ensure your safety during the procedure. This way, the doctors can quickly give you the correct medication to raise your blood pressure if it drops suddenly.
When do you start experiencing the effects?
It takes a little while for the epidural anesthesia to start working, usually around 10-20 minutes. Sometimes it can take longer to get the injection in the epidural space, or it may not work for everyone. But for many women, it can be a helpful way to manage the pain of natural childbirth.
Even though it is effective, it needs to be examined for its pros and cons to help determine if it is a good option for your labor plans. After reading the information below, you can decide if you should get an epidural for managing your labor pains.
Pros of epidurals during labor
Here are some of the epidural pros for maternal epidural analgesia:
Babies are sweet, but labor hurts. An epidural significantly decreases the pain. They can provide complete pain relief in the lower half of your body.
Improved natural birth experience
Some women who opt for an epidural during delivery report a more positive natural birth experience overall and are less likely to experience postpartum depression.
Allows for rest
Epidurals can provide pain relief that allows you to rest during labor, which helps conserve your energy when you need to push during delivery.
Lets you participate
Epidurals allow you to stay awake and alert during the birthing process, making your participation in decision-making easier.
Painful labor can be stressful, and an epidural can help reduce anxiety and stress levels, leading to a more relaxed and positive natural birth experience.
Cons of epidurals during labor
As with any medical treatment, there are risks associated with using an epidural during labor. Some of these risks include:
Epidurals can delay labor progress, making it take longer for your baby to be born. This delay increases the likelihood of needing interventions, such as forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery, which may lead to a birth injury.
Epidurals can numb your lower body, making it hard to push effectively when necessary during delivery.
Possible side effects
Epidurals can cause other side effects, such as lowered blood pressure, headache, fever, nausea, itching, shivering, and difficulty urinating. It can also leave the baby feeling drowsy and less alert at first, too.
Rarely, more severe side effects, such as permanent nerve damage, spinal injury, or infections, can arise, calling for additional medical intervention.
Epidurals may make it difficult for you to move around and change positions delaying labor progression and increasing the risk of complications.
Increased risk of cesarean delivery
Women who opt for an epidural are more likely to require a cesarean delivery, particularly if the epidural is given too early in labor.
You may have trouble urinating
You may need a urinary catheter to empty your bladder because an epidural numbs your lower body. This is only temporary. The urinary catheter can be removed once your numbness has resolved.
Some studies also found that it may cause delayed urination in your baby.
Alternatives to epidurals for pain management during labor
Several other pain management options are available during labor for women who want an unmedicated birth. Here are some of them:
Breathing exercises, like slow, deep breathing, can distract you from contractions, help you deal with the pain, and reduce stress and anxiety during labor.
Movement and positions
Movement and different positions can reduce discomfort and keep labor progressing. Walking around, rocking a labor ball, and changing postures can help to reduce pain and pressure and encourage your baby to move down the birth canal.
Massage and counterpressure
Massage and applying counterpressure to the lower back, hips, and other areas can help to reduce tension during labor and delivery.
Hydrotherapy, or using water, is a very effective means of relieving pain during labor. Taking a warm shower or bath, or using a birthing pool, can promote relaxation during your natural birth experience.
Acupuncture and acupressure
Acupuncture and acupressure is a technique that lowers pain and promotes relaxation during labor and delivery. These techniques involve using tiny needles or pressure on specific points in the body to stimulate the release of natural pain-relieving hormones.
RELATED READ: 11 Methods For Natural Pain Relief During Labor
Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, is inhaled pain relief that can be used during labor. It can help to reduce pain and anxiety and has a short duration of action, making it a good option for women who want to remain alert and mobile when giving birth.
Although it is safe, some people may feel dizzy and nauseous temporarily.
Opioids are short-acting pain medications that your doctor can administer intravenously or injected into your muscle. They do not affect your ability to push.
Side effects include feeling dizzy and nauseous and may induce vomiting. Typically, your doctor will avoid using opioids if you are due to deliver very soon because opioids can slow down the baby’s breathing and heart rate.
A pudendal block involves injecting a local anesthetic medication into the pudendal nerve and vagina just before the baby’s head crowns. The numbing medication can help reduce the pain when giving birth.
However, not all doctors know how to do a pudendal block, as the technique has generally fallen out of favor.
How to choose whether to have an epidural
The decision to have an epidural before giving birth is a personal one. It should be based on your preference, pain tolerance, and potential risks and benefits. Talk to your doctor about any concerns. Here are some factors to consider when making your decision:
Your pain tolerance
Consider your pain tolerance and how you typically manage pain. An epidural may be a good option if you have a low tolerance or are anxious about labor pains.
Your birth plan
Do you have a birth plan? If so, you may want to see how an epidural fits into it. For example, an epidural may not be a practical pain management method if you decide to have a natural birth at home, water birth, or want to be able to push on your hands and knees.
The stage of labor
Consider the stage of labor and how an epidural may affect your ability to push and deliver your baby. If you just started contracting and have a long way to go, you may want to hold off on an epidural until later.
Potential risks and side effects
Consider the potential risks and side effects of an epidural and weigh them against the potential benefits of pain relief.
Your support system
Consider the support you will have during labor and how they can help you manage pain. You may cope well without an epidural if you have people to encourage you. A supportive partner or doula who can help with massage, breathing techniques, or other forms of pain relief.
Choosing whether an epidural is right for you
Epidurals can provide effective pain relief during labor, making vaginal delivery more manageable for women. However, there are also pros and cons associated with using an epidural. Always weigh the benefits against the potential risks carefully before making your choice.
Remember to discuss your options for pain management during labor with your healthcare provider and to have a plan in place that aligns with your preferences and goals for birth.
Childbirth is a unique experience. What works for one woman may not work for another.