The needle your anesthesiologist will use to administer an epidural is no joke, but for many pregnant women, this numbing procedure is worth enduring. As with any medical procedure, an epidural isn't without risks. Side effects tend to be minor, though, and most can be easily treated. If you do opt to receive an epidural, you'll be in good company -- Stanford University anesthesia and obstetrics/gynecology professor, Sheila Cohen, M.D., says more than 60 percent of American women who give birth each year have one.
A drop in the mother's blood pressure is often a side effect of an epidural. Because low blood pressure could cause your baby's heart rate to slow, medical staff will work quickly to stabilize your pressure. You may receive intravenous fluids or other medications to raise your blood pressure, or be asked to lie on your side to encourage blood circulation, says the University of Maryland Medical Center. As long as you're carefully monitored, this drop in blood pressure shouldn't have a lasting impact on you or your baby.
Headaches and Soreness
Soreness or irritation in your lower back at the site where the epidural was administered is possible and might persist for a few days after delivery, says the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Medicine. An epidural can sometimes cause headaches after delivery if the lining containing spinal fluid is accidentally punctured during the anesthesia process. Only about 2 to 3 percent of women will experience this headache after delivery, according to UNC, and it often goes away without treatment.
More Potential Side Effects
Nausea, shivering and difficulty urinating are possible and minor side effects of an epidural. Side effects with lasting results are uncommon. UNC's department of anesthesiology says that neurologic problems -- such as numbness after labor or lasting paralysis -- are rare but do occur. Some pregnant women fear that epidurals may lead to cesarean sections, but the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that opting for an epidural doesn't increase your chances of having this type of delivery.
The question of whether receiving an epidural affects the length of labor is one that's long been debated. According to UNC, an epidural may slow down or speed up the first part of labor when your cervix is dilating, and may make the pushing part of labor last longer than it would be without anesthesia. However, Cohen says she believes getting an epidural early in labor doesn't delay progress and might even speed it up if you're an anxious patient.