Epidural takes the pain out of pushing, but is it safe?

By Shayna Brouker • Published: March 18th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Pregnant women have suffered through the agony of childbirth for centuries; it’s just one of womanhood’s many rites of passage.

Ancient Egyptians used fenugreek seeds steeped in milk to dull pain. And we’ve come a long way since the 1960s, when inhaling toxic chloroform was popular. Nowadays, expectant moms can enjoy the luxury of nearly pain-free delivery, thanks to the epidural.

The epidural was first used in 1858 when a German doctor gave his assistant a shot of cocaine in his spinal column, numbing the lower half of his body. The technique was perfected to ease pregnant women’s labor pains in the 1970s and is now the preferred pain relief method of over 70 percent of American women.

But as with the dozens of other choices during pregnancy — from “is breast really best” to “do you have to kick your caffeine habit?” — to “use the needle or not” is a divisive topic. Is it safe for mom and baby?

To clear any confusion, you can’t become paralyzed. An epidural provides local anesthesia and doesn’t run through the bloodstream. You can opt for a light epidural, which allows more control over contractions and reduces the need for forceps-assisted delivery. It can help women relax and focus on the delivery rather than the pain.

But in exchange for painless pushing, some women might experience a sudden drop in blood pressure. Other side effects include ringing ears, backache or nausea. And while an epidural is unlikely to affect baby, research suggests it may affect a newborn’s ability to “latch on” during breastfeeding shortly after birth.

So whether you’re nixing the needle for a natural birth or opting for an epidural, choose the option you’re most comfortable with. In the end, that’s best for both you and baby.