For many expectant moms, an epidural can mean the difference between savoring the Beautiful Miracle of Life and wanting to punch their hand through a wall. Just knowing the option exists can make the labor process easier for moms who are determined to go the distance without meds. But when you do opt for the procedure, it's important to know what's normal and what's not afterward. There are symptoms of epidural complications that all new mothers should know about in order to take charge of their own postpartum recovery.
"Getting an epidural is a common procedure performed by the anesthesiologists on labor and delivery," explains Jennifer Aquino, M.D., an OB/GYN and clinical assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Health in New York. In an interview with Romper, she adds, "It is used to give medicine directly into the area surrounding the spinal cord, and is used to block pain in a patient's body during labor." It's such an effective procedure that only 1 in 100 women who undergo an epidural needs any additional form of painkiller, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Epidurals are a common treatment and usually have no lasting effects after the anesthetic wears off. However, as with any medical procedure, there are risks of certain complications. These are a few potential problems that can occur around the epidural site; if you experience any of them postpartum, alert the medical staff:
- Fever. Just as with any break in the skin, an epidural may be complicated by bacteria entering the injection site. This can cause an infection, which causes the body to spike a fever as a result of the white blood cells increasing to fight the infection.
- Itching. Between 30 and 50 percent of patients receiving an epidural experience itching around the injection site, according to Parents. If you notice itching, alert your doctor, who can prescribe medication to relieve the discomfort.
- Headache. "One of the more common complications that can happen with an epidural is called a spinal headache," explains Dr. Aquino. "It happens because the spot where the needle was placed may not close all the way after the epidural and this can lead to leakage of spinal fluid which will ultimately result in a headache." The leakage may also happen if the needle punctures the covering of the spinal column during the injection. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) tells Romper that this side effect can occur anywhere from a day to a week after the epidural. "Standard headache medications are tried first to relieve the headache," says a representative. "If they don't work, you may need to have a simple procedure called a blood patch." This involves drawing some of your own blood and injecting it near the space around the epidural site. As the blood clots, it blocks the spinal fluid from leaking.
- Dizziness. The ACOG representative explains that in a small percentage of cases, the anesthetic may be injected into a vein near the spinal cord instead of in the space around it. This can result in symptoms such as dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, or even a funny taste in the mouth. "To reduce the chance of these problems, you will be monitored closely while you are receiving epidural medication."
- Numbness or tingling. Once the anesthetic has worn off completely (it takes about 20-30 minutes), you should regain sensation in your lower back and legs. But in very rare cases, nerve damage from an epidural may occur as a result of a misplaced needle or an infection around the site, explained the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. If you suddenly feel any numbness or a pins-and-needles feeling in your back or legs after the epidural has already worn off, tell your doctor immediately.