Epidurals for labor pain

  • Low blood pressure -- This is the most common potentially serious complication of epidurals. To give you an idea of how common, a recent study reported that one woman in five experienced low blood pressure (hypotension) with two per hundred requiring drug treatment to correct it (22). Hypotension (28) can be particularly dangerous in cases where the baby is already at risk such as when the mother has high blood pressure (pregnancy induced hypertension or preeclampsia), the baby is already experiencing fetal distress, or the baby is premature.
  • Fetal distress -- About one in ten babies will experience an episode of seriously abnormal heart rate as a result of an epidural (11,26,27). Note: Some doctors have argued that epidurals protect babies from fetal distress. By eliminating pain, epidurals lower maternal adrenalin levels, which theoretically reduces the risk of fetal distress. However, no trial in which women were randomly assigned to an epidural or not has found that epidurals benefit babies and as you can see here, several studies have found that epidurals can cause the problem they are supposed to prevent.
  • Life-threatening complications -- About 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 4,000 women will experience a complication (dangerously low blood pressure, respiratory or cardiac arrest, severe allergic reaction, convulsion) that will require emergency treatment to save them and their baby’s lives (8,25).
  • Temporary problems after the birth -- These can include severe headache, urinary incontinence, muscle weakness or abnormal sensation, or a painful bruise (8,21,24,25). All are rare.
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