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What Are Common Side Effects of an Epidural?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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One of the most common pain medications administered to women in labor is the epidural. While it is generally considered safe and usually adept at managing the pain of giving birth, there are several common side effects of an epidural. These can include the need for other interventions during birth, including a catheter or cesarean, as well as short-term health issues, such as nausea and headaches. For some women, the side effects include long-term problems such as back aches and incontinence as well as some issues with the baby and in breastfeeding.

An epidural, which can typically be injected at any time during labor, generally limits feeling from the waist down while still leaving a woman alert. This numbness can limit a woman’s ability to move during labor, which can make labor last longer; it can also limit her ability to empty her bladder, typically requiring the insertion of a catheter. This slowing of the progression of labor can also put a woman more at risk of a cesarean. One of the side effects of an epidural is low blood pressure, also known as hypotension, which is experienced by 29% of women who get an epidural injection. In most medical facilities, it is standard to require a woman who has received an epidural block to wear a blood pressure cuff throughout her labor and delivery, which can also limit her movement.

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There are several short-term side effects of an epidural. The most common is nausea and vomiting, which is common in unmedicated births, although this can be exacerbated by the medicine used in epidurals. Epidurals can also cause a woman to experience chills and severe headaches after an epidural is administered. Other than medical issues, there is also always the risk that the epidural may be ineffective, which is a fear for many women.

Long-term side effects include mild-to-severe lower back aches, which can last for a few months or even years following an injection. The use of an epidural during childbirth can also increase the likelihood of incontinence in many women. There are also side effects of an epidural for the baby, including increased drowsiness shortly after birth, and a poor sucking reflex, which can hinder establishing a successful breastfeeding relationship. While only a small risk, there is also the possibility that epidurals increase the likelihood of a baby developing jaundice.

While many of these side effects of an epidural can seem minuscule, there are some more dangerous risks as well, although they are rare. With an epidural injection, the mother is at risk for cardiac arrest, allergic shock, and in some cases, the epidural can be fatal. There is also the rare, but deadly, risk of the baby experiencing drug toxicity. Despite all of the risks, epidurals are generally considered safe and effective for most women; as with most medical procedures, it is important to always be aware of the possible uncertainties.

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