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Epidural Facts

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Updated September 10, 2013

Epidural Catheter

Epidural Catheter

Photo © A.D.A.M.

Epidural anesthesia is one of the most popular forms of medications for pain relief in labor and birth. It can be used for a normal vaginal birth, a vaginal birth with forceps or vacuum extraction, or even a surgical (cesarean) birth.

Unlike medications previously used or currently used narcotics, the epidural can leave the mother wide awake and mentally aware of everything going on during the birth of her baby. Pain relief varies from mother to mother, some women experience a completely numb feeling from the level of their upper abdomen down to their toes, others feel only pressure during contractions or pushing. What you will experience will depend on the medication used, the placement of the epidural, and other factors. It is important to discuss with your anesthetist what type of feeling you would like to have after the medication is administered.

However, as with any medication or procedure there are also risks. The major complication from epidural anesthesia is a drop in the mother's blood pressure. Most hospitals will try to prevent this by giving the mother IV fluids prior to the administration of the epidural. Sometimes an epidural can lead to fetal distress, fetal malposition, increased risk of forceps or vacuum extraction, episiotomy, and in some studies, and increased risk of cesarean section.

When making the decision about pain medications it's important to keep all of your options open. Learning additional coping techniques can be very useful for the time period prior to receiving the epidural or if you fall into the 12-20% that have a partial rather than full block. A good childbirth class can teach you these skills and go more in depth about the epidural and it's uses in labor and birth.
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