Here's What's Actually Happening If The Epidural Only Works On One Side Of Your Body

There's one thing on the forefront of most pregnant women's minds — labor and delivery. As if growing and carrying a child (or multiple children) isn't the absolute hardest work, the culmination of that experience involves actually having to give birth. A healthy and safe delivery for both mom and baby is always the end goal, so there is zero shame in getting an epidural. But, a lot of women worry about what an epidural could feel like, especially after hearing stories from others. Like, what does it mean if an epidural only works on one side of your body? Does this actually happen, and what can be done about it?

According to Dr. Lakeisha Richardson, OB-GYN, "When a patient gets an epidural, a catheter is inserted into the epidural space of the spinal canal, and a continuous amount of medicine is infused until labor is complete." What can happen with that, Richardson tells Romper, is that if a patient is positioned to one side during labor (for comfort, or otherwise), the medication can also settle on that side. "Patients will have a denser block on that one side, and may experience more pain on the opposite side," she continues.

According to Fit Pregnancy, epidurals work to block pain by taking advantage of how nerves that carry pain signals will have to travel through the "epidural space" on their way to your brain. Anesthesia can be injected into this epidural space to block those pain signals. Without those signals, your brain can't tell what your body is feeling.

Over 50 percent of women birthing in hospitals use epidural anesthesia, noted the American Pregnancy Association (APA). In fact, epidurals are requested by name more than any other of method of pain relief. It's important to note that the intention of epidurals are to relieve pain locally, and not block out feeling altogether.

As mentioned by the APA, if you decide to get an epidural, you'll be asked to arch your back and stay still while either lying down on one side or sitting up. After your mid-back is wiped clean with an antiseptic, you'll receive a small injection with a local anesthetic. Then, a needle will be inserted into that numbed area, followed by a small tube (or, catheter) will be threaded through that needle. After the needle is removed, the catheter is taped to your back to prevent movement, and that's how you receive your pain relief.

Less than 5 percent of women have unrelieved labor pain after receiving an epidural, as noted by Fit Pregnancy. This can be caused by the baby's position or just simply needing more medication. Occasionally, the pain is relieved on only one side of the body, either because the catheter is mispositioned or dislodged or because the mother stays in the same position for too long.

Fortunately, according to Richardson, if you're worried about having a lopsided epidural, the issue has an easy fix. "The denser, one-sided block can be resolved by changing the patients' position to a more neutral position," she says, "Or, if position changes do not help, the catheter can always be readjusted or replaced." Easy peasy.

Getting an epidural is definitely a personal choice, and sometimes it can be a last minute, in-the-moment decision. Regardless of whether or not you end up using an epidural during delivery, it's important to research and talk to your doctor about possibilities and options so you can make a decision that you feel good about. And choosing to get an epidural or not has nothing to do with how tough you are — bodies and labors and deliveries are all different, as is every birthing situation. Doing what's best for you and your baby is never a bad choice.

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