When you're about to have a C-section, a lot is going through your mind. (I mean, you are about to undergo major surgery and have a baby all at the same time.) One concern you might have is the anesthesia they'll use for the surgery. You've probably heard of an epidural, but commonly, they use something called a spinal block during a C-section. I know, it sounds super scary, but what you need to know about getting a spinal block during a C-section can make you feel a lot better.
First of all, a spinal block is different from a spinal epidural, and very different from a spinal tap. According to Australian and New Zealand College of Anesthetists, a spinal block is a one time injection of a strong medication into the spinal fluid that blocks pain quickly and lasts for a few hours. It is a regional anesthetic, which numbs you from the abdomen down, allowing you the use of your arms, and the ability to move your head. A spinal epidural is trickier. The needle used is larger, and they thread a catheter through it into your epidural space, and medicine can be continually administered via the catheter. (A spinal tap is a diagnostic technique unrelated to childbirth used primarily if they suspect meningitis.)
According to the Cochrane Database, a spinal block is often used because a C-section is typically not a long procedure, so a continual drip of anesthesia is unnecessary. It also means that your lower body will go from normal to unusable in mere moments. I had a spinal block for a gynecological procedure, and I swear, I went from feeling everything to jellyfish in a heartbeat. However, another procedure that's increasingly more common is the combined spinal-epidural block, which has the benefits of both by combining a traditional spinal block while also inserting an epidural catheter that can be used if it becomes necessary, according to Dr. Heather Nixon, MD.
But what you really need to know about getting a spinal block during a C-section is that while the procedure is quick, generally painless, and also generally very effective, there are risks and side effects associated with the procedure. In an email with Romper, Nixon writes that "common side effects include chills, a drop in blood pressure and nausea. A small portion of patients (about 1 percent) will experience a headache following spinal anesthesia or epidural catheter placement. This headache may range from mild to quite severe, needing intervention. Major complications include epidural hematoma (bleeding in back), epidural abscess (infection in back), seizures (if medication enters your bloodstream) and nerve injury. Luckily, all of these major complications are very rare."
So how does it happen? The way a spinal block is performed is pretty simple — an anesthesiologist will come in, sit you up, clean your back with an iodine solution, place a sticky, plastic, contact paper-type guard over your back, and give you some topical local anesthesia. Then, inject medication directly into the fluid surrounding your spinal column, leaving you numb, but ambulatory, though you will likely be unable to walk.
Overall, what form of anesthesia you'll be given is a conversation you need to have with your provider. They can lay out what they think, and what your best options are. I will tell you, having had both, and really, I am just happy to be numb.