If you're pregnant and nearing your due date, you've probably thought long and hard about how and where you'll deliver, including whether or not you'll use any pain medications. There are more than a few common misconceptions about the most common labor and delivery pain relief method: the epidural. So, if you're wondering how having an epidural affects your body, both during labor and as you're recovering after childbirth, look no further. It turns out, there are more than a few experts with more than a few answers.
According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), more than 50 percent of pregnant women use epidurals during labor and delivery. And, according to the APA, there are actually three pain relieving options, and which one you choose will determine the kind of effects you're going to experience. The basic options for childbirth pain management are either a regular epidural, a spinal block, or a combined spinal-epidural, also known as a "walking" epidural. There are pros and cons to each option, and while the choice is, for the most part, entirely up to you, where you are in labor, how your body is reacting to labor, and what the hospital offers can also dictate what type of epidural is made available to you.
Parenting details the different kinds of labor pain relief, starting with the regular epidural and reporting the following:
"Anesthesia, such as bupivacaine or lidocaine, is injected through a catheter into the space around the spine. The catheter remains in place, so additional doses can be given throughout labor."
One of the biggest pros of a regular epidural is that the pain relief can be re-administered regularly, because the catheter remains in your back throughout the course of your labor and delivery so the relief is long-lasting. You will also remain alert, and the anesthesia does not enter the baby's bloodstream. Of course, the main drawback is that once you have it, you'll be too numb to walk and, as a result, are confined to your bed. The numbness may also make it more difficult to push during delivery, and depending on how long you have the epidural in, and how long your labor lasts, you might have to have a urinary catheter, too.
The spinal block, on the other hand, gives immediate relief as the anesthesia is injected directly into the spinal cord fluid. It does, however, wear off after a few hours. According to Parents, the spinal block is usually used late in labor, as it can only be administered once. One of the major pros to this particular method, however, is that the anesthesia doesn't enter the baby's blood stream like it does with a walking epidural, and you don't need to have a catheter attached to you.
Walking epidurals aren't offered at all hospitals, but where they are offered they might provide a little more flexibility than a regular epidural or spinal block. Parents explains, reporting the following:
"This option combines a narcotic like fentanyl (which dulls pain) with a lower dose of anesthesia (which blocks all sensation in one part of the body), leaving your legs less numb. Because of this, some women can move around and get out of bed."
However, Parenting acknowledges that calling it a walking epidural is a bit misleading, because most patients who receive a walking epidural aren't or can't get out of bed, either. The combination of drugs in the walking epidural may make you less numb, but you could also experience the side effect of you and your baby becoming sleepy as a result of the medication.
All of these pain relief options have drawbacks, according to BabyCenter, like lowering your heart rate and potentially your baby's. Epidurals and spinal blocks can slow your labor down, increasing the likelihood that you will need another drug, like Pitocin, to keep labor active and moving along.
The APA also cites additional side effects, including shivering, a ringing of the ears, backache, soreness where the needle is inserted, nausea, and/or difficulty urinating. The APA also highlights that approximately 1 percent of women experience a severe headache caused by leakage of spinal fluid. Your baby might experience the effects of the epidural as well, although the APA acknowledges that studies have not definitely proven whether or not epidurals are the culprit, writing:
"Though research is somewhat ambiguous, most studies suggest that some babies will have trouble “latching on” causing breastfeeding difficulties. Other studies suggest that a baby might experience respiratory depression, fetal malpositioning, and an increase in fetal heart rate variability, thus increasing the need for forceps, vacuum, cesarean deliveries, and episiotomies."
Arming yourself with knowledge about the different kinds of pain relief available to you during your labor, and how that pain relief might affect your body during and after childbirth, can help you make the right decision for your labor and delivery experience.
Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:
Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.