What are the risks and side effects of an epidural?

The more frequently seen risks and side effects of an epidural (which actually are not that common) can include shivering, itching, and a slight drop in blood pressure. These side effects are known and can be treated or prevented. Since sometimes it is difficult to urinate when the epidural is in effect, some women need placement of a Foley catheter to keep the bladder empty. There are very rare, more serious risks that the anesthesiologist will explain. While any type of anesthetic or analgesic has risks, an epidural for labor or cesarean delivery is generally very safe.

The risks and side effects of an epidural include infection at the site of the needle and headache.

Although most women have epidurals with no problems during labor and delivery, there may be some drawbacks to using this pain relief method:

  • An epidural can cause your blood pressure to decrease. This, in turn, may slow your baby's heartbeat. To decrease this risk, you'll be given fluids through an intravenous line before the drug is injected. You also may need to lie on your side to improve blood flow.
  • After delivery, your back may be sore from the injection for a few days. However, an epidural should not cause long-term back pain.
  • If the covering of the spinal cord is perforated, you can get a bad headache. If it's not treated, this headache may last for days. This is rare.
  • When an epidural is given late in labor or a lot of medication is used, it may be hard to bear down and push your baby through the birth canal. If you cannot feel enough when it is time to push, your anesthesiologist can adjust the dosage. Serious complications are very rare.
  • If the drug enters a vein, you could get dizzy or, rarely, have a seizure.
  • If epidural medication enters your spinal fluid, it can affect your chest muscles and make it hard for you to breathe.

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