The Truth About Epidural Side Effects

By Josh Axe, www.DrAxe.com
November 8, 2019 Updated: November 8, 2019

The purpose of writing this article is to give light to some unknown facts about epidural side effects and also to give some natural alternatives for pain relief during labor.

While not everyone experiences epidural side effects, it’s good to be aware of possible complications, and this articles presents the medical studies so you can know what the research really says.

What Is an Epidural?

(ChaNaWiT/Shutterstock)
Epidural complications are not unheard of, and serious epidural side effects are possible. (ChaNaWiT/Shutterstock)

An epidural is a local anesthetic that is injected into a pocket near the spinal cord, called the lumbar epidural space. The process starts with the insertion of a small tube that delivers drugs near the nerves that are responsible for the pain during labor. The procedure takes 5–10 minutes, and pain relief often begins within 15 minutes.

Epidurals provide for regional pain relief, while allowing patients to remain fully conscious.

Often, Novocain is used as a spinal anesthesia to prevent the initiation and transmission of nerve impulses.

Epidural complications are not unheard of, and serious epidural side effects are possible. Epidurals provide for regional pain relief, while allowing patients to remain fully conscious. The procedure decreases the pain by blocking nerve signals from both motor and sensory nerves, while generally immobilizing the lower part of the body.

It should be noted that epidurals do decrease pain, but do not provide total relief, as this would impair the body’s natural pushing reflexes.

Impact on Hormones

The unintended epidural side effects can interfere with the natural birthing process and mother-baby bonding. (Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock)

Before we get into the wide range of possible side effects of epidurals, it is important to explain how hormones are affected. Throughout pregnancy and labor, hormones fluctuate based on what your body needs and what the baby needs to develop properly.

One of the most important hormones we have is oxytocin. It is responsible for contractions, anxiety reduction, feelings of security and contentment, and it contributes to mother-baby bonding.

Throughout labor, the body self-regulates the amount of oxytocin necessary. At the beginning stages of labor, pulses of oxytocin are released every three to five minutes. This helps to encourage rhythmic contractions as the baby descends in the birth canal.

Pain relief in the form of an epidural causes a reduction in natural oxytocin.

As labor progresses, the body responds, and oxytocin is released more and more often to help facilitate the fetal ejection reflex for birth. After birth, the hormone facilitates in the passing of the placenta and encourages a healthy mother-baby bond. However, with an epidural, natural oxytocin production is inhibited, resulting in decreased plasma oxytocin concentrations.

As a result of this epidural side effect, many women are given Pitocin or Syntocinon, synthetic forms of this essential hormone, oxytocin. They are not natural, and are often prescribed to induce contractions before labor begins naturally, or while in the midst of labor to strengthen contractions. If this last part seems contradictory, it is.

Pain relief in the form of an epidural causes a reduction in natural oxytocin, requiring the administration of the synthetic form to get the same results.

In fact, studies show that one of the side effects of an epidural is that it slows the labor process, resulting in a three-times greater chance of having oxytocic drugs prescribed.

It is believed that epidurals can cause labor to last longer, sometimes by as much as nearly eight hours.

In addition to prolonged labor, the decrease in natural oxytocin may cause difficulty in breastfeeding.

As mentioned above, oxytocin is important for many functions, including mother-baby bonding and the “letdown reflex” required for lactation. Oxytocin is produced naturally after birth as well, to stimulate uterus contraction, thus preventing postpartum hemorrhage. It is simply not a hormone you want to be deficient in during labor or recovery.

It is not just the mom who produces oxytocin during labor; the baby also produces oxytocin, resulting in the release of “happy loving hormones” for both mother and baby. Levels further increase with skin-to-skin contact, causing a significantly heightened potential for mother-baby bonding. This is one of the epidural side effects that is not often considered: When a mother’s oxytocin levels decrease during labor, so do her baby’s.

Epidural Side Effects for Mom

(Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock)
(Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock)
  • Inhibits production of oxytocin
  • Triples the occurrence of induction with synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin)
  • Inhibits production of catecholamine
  • Limits release of prostaglandin F2 alpha, resulting in longer labor
  • Lengthens the duration of labor
  • Triples the risk of severe vaginal tears
  • May increase the risk of cesarean sections 2.5 times
  • Quadruples the chance baby will be persistently posterior in the final stages
  • Decreases the chances for spontaneous vaginal delivery
  • Increases the chance of complications from instrumental delivery (including vacuum and forceps)
  • Increases the risk of pelvic floor problems (including anal, sexual, and urinary)
  • Risks complications from infections and epidural abscess and vertebral osteomyelitis
  • Creates potential complication from accidental puncture of the spinal cord coverings
  • Creates potential for permanent nerve damage

Epidural Side Effects for Baby

(Lisa Eastman/Shutterstock)
(Lisa Eastman/Shutterstock)
  • Causes neurological and development deficits as a result of known toxicity of epidural drugs
  • Adversely affects newborn immune system
  • Increases risk for NICU stays in full-term newborns
  • May interfere with breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding
  • Increases risk for fetal bradycardia
  • May compromise fetal oxygen and blood supply
  • Slows elimination of epidural drugs due to baby’s immature immune system
  • Increases vulnerability for low blood sugar
  • Risks behavioral abnormalities for first six weeks

Easing Labor Pain

Today, epidurals are so commonplace that many women assume they are safe. However, in the vast majority of births, epidurals are not necessary. While pain is real, and every woman experiences pain in different ways, there are some effective ways to control labor pain.

Giving birth is a personal event. No two women experience labor in the same manner, and pain levels vary widely. It is important to balance the pain and the toxicity that epidurals introduce to you and your baby.

Epidural side effects can range from mild to severe, as I’ve mentioned above. When combined with synthetic oxytocin, labor can be longer and can cause significant stress to both mom and baby.

The unintended epidural side effects can interfere with the natural birthing process and mother-baby bonding. Of course, in certain circumstances, epidurals can be helpful, especially in the event of a cesarean section.

Take the time to research and make an informed choice when it comes to pain management during labor.

Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. He recently authored “Eat Dirt” and “Gut Repair Cookbook,” and he operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites at DrAxe.com

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