Labour is a unique experience for every woman, so it’s a good idea to be armed with info on all the options; especially when it comes to pain relief. Epidurals are one of the most commonly utilised forms of anaesthesia—here’s how they work.
“Epidural anaesthesia for labour pain relief is a type of anaesthesia where pain medication is injected near the lower spine or backbone,” explains Sangeeta Kumaraswami, M.D., an obstetric anaesthesiologist. “It numbs the body below the injection, allowing a woman to remain awake and alert but more comfortable throughout labour, and feel pressure to push when it is time to deliver her baby. It can also be referred to as an epidural block or epidural injection.”
During labour, the uterus contracts, creating painful sensations that speed along the neural pathways in the spine towards the brain.
Essentially, an epidural blocks the pain from cognitive awareness. The anaesthetic is injected into the ‘epidural space’, an area surrounding the nerves in the spinal cord. “The anaesthetic agent then bathes the nerves, which become numb and thus prevent the transmission of pain sensations,” says Iffath Hoskins, M.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
As far as the common concerns go, epidurals have not conclusively been found to increase length of labour, nor to increase chances of C-section delivery. Dr. Kumaraswami does note, however, that epidural side effects can include lowered blood pressure, mild itching, back pain, and headache.
Dr. Hoskins advises disclosing to your doctor any allergies, especially those to local anaesthetics, breathing problems, bleeding problems, spinal surgery, etc. when drafting your labour plan. And don’t push things (after baby’s out, that is):”After delivery, wait to move until you’ve regained full feeling in the lower extremities because there is a high chance of falling and injury if there is residual numbness,” she says.