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5 Labor Stories About Epidurals That Went Really Wrong

Photograph by Getty Images

Ask someone for the phrases they most associate with childbirth and one response is likely to be, “Get me the epidural!” There are some good reasons why, too. Epidurals are fairly low-risk. They’re offered in almost every single hospital in the United States. And, perhaps most importantly, they provide nearly complete pain relief during what is one of the most painful experiences a person can experience.

They’re not miracles, but they can sure feel like one.

But what happens when an epidural goes wrong? These five stories from moms across the country paint a less than rosy picture of epidurals. While there are no perfect fixes to these problems, there are a few solutions—ones that could prove useful if you or someone you know ever encounters a similar situation.

1. Sometimes, an epidural can leave you feeling “too numb,” and a little panicked as a result.

From PC, a parent of 4 in Colorado:

“My epidural with my third was completely miserable. My baby was OP [occiput posterior or “sunny side up”] and contractions were excruciatingly painful. I knew they would intensify [after the doctor broke my water] and asked for an epidural first. The anesthesiologist gave me a huge bolus that left me completely numb from my chest down and unable to move my lower body at all. I got extremely nauseated and started to panic a little bit. The [doctor] repeatedly assured me the effects of the bolus would wear off ‘in a half hour or so,’ but after two hours nothing had changed except the shift. I had my nurse call in the anesthesiologist who had just come on shift, and he was incredibly rude and condescending. He argued with me about why he shouldn't turn down the epidural drip, saying the dose [was] based on height and I'd be in terrible pain, and then it would take another 45 minutes for an increased dose to take effect. Eventually, he agreed to turn it down, and after another hour or so I was able to feel and move—but the contractions were bearable.”

What’s a solution?

Self-advocacy worked in this situation. (As if this mom didn’t have enough to focus on already.) But she also took this lesson with her to her next birth, and she had a much better epidural experience. She writes that “I talked with the anesthesiologist at length about what I hated about the epidural with [my previous labor], and she agreed to give me a very minimal dose with no bolus. It worked out perfectly, and ever since then I have always encouraged women to think about what they want from an epidural, then make sure they talk with the anesthesiologist beforehand!”

2. Spinal headaches aren’t entirely uncommon, but they can be entirely unpleasant.

From CS, a mother of 3:

“When they gave me the epidural, they accidentally missed and spinal fluid was [leaking]. I didn't feel anything until I sat up. I had terrible nauseous headaches. They suggested drinking Diet Pepsi. Finally, they had to come do a blood patch and essentially reverse the epidural so that my own blood could heal the holes where the spinal fluid was getting in. The doctor said I wouldn't have more headaches as a result of what happened but that they could be worse. I don't get headaches often …But when I do now they are awful.”

What’s a solution?

Spinal headaches can occur after an anesthesiologist unintentionally punctures the membrane surrounding the spinal cord. As with the above case, blood patches can repair any holes caused by the initial epidural insertion. Moreover, caffeine (like the caffeine from the Diet Pepsi) can help to alleviate any headaches. According to the Mayo Clinic, some people even require IV caffeine administration.

3. Sometimes, epidurals only provide partial relief.

From AS, a parent in Virginia:

“I only tried one with my first baby. It worked on one hemisphere of my body. They reinserted it, same thing. That was my most stressful birth, because the hope of pain relief coupled with not preparing for dealing with pain was difficult to deal with. I never bothered with another one again.”

What’s a solution?

Think laboring without an epidural is rough? Try laboring with partial or nonexistent pain relief after expecting that relief from an epidural. In cases like these, the laboring person needs someone to help her regain some focus. She might very well need physical and emotional support through each and every contraction, too. It won’t give her the relief she expected, but it might help those contractions to be less torturous.

The anesthesiologist told me I was overreacting, that I couldn't possibly be in that much pain.

4. Some parents also need extra assistance breastfeeding following an epidural.

From HF, a mom of 6:

“I had to have [the epidural] removed and placed higher because the anesthesiologist didn't take my spine curvature into account. Which then caused the bottom half of my breasts to be numb. I got a horrible blood blister from my son not being latched properly but not being able to feel it.”

What’s a solution?

This is where nurses, lactation consultants, doulas or an experienced family member can be invaluable. If a person still feels numb on or near their breasts following their baby’s birth, it’s a good idea to let their nurse or other support person know. That way, they can get the help they need to position their baby properly on the breast. Because really: no new mom needs to deal with postpartum recovery, a new baby, and a blood blister.

5. Epidurals can also lead to lasting pain or numbness.

From KS of Ohio:

“When [the anesthesiologist] inserted the epidural and they laid me down on the bed, I experienced pain so vivid it is difficult to explain. It felt as though every nerve in my body from the neck down was on fire. I felt like I was paralyzed, with lightning bolt pain radiating from every inch of my spine. I couldn't move. All I could do was lie on the bed with huge tears streaming down my terrified face. The anesthesiologist told me I was overreacting, that I couldn't possibly be in that much pain. The nurses used a sheet that was under me to roll me back and forth, until suddenly I felt a rush of cold in my veins, and the epidural was working as it should. Approximately 6 weeks after the birth I called the anesthesiologist to see if my residual pain was normal … He said, "Probably," and got me off the phone as quickly as he could. I eventually turned to chiropractic care, which did eventually relieve the pain somewhat. The numbness continued for years afterward, and even more than 5 years later I would continue to feel numbness in my spine when I would bend over to tie my shoes.”

What’s a solution?

In the case above, the nurses provided some relief by helping to spread the effects of the epidural medication throughout the woman’s body. But there is a separate issue here, too: the dismissal of pain. Unfortunately, there is plenty of research suggesting that medical care providers sometimes don’t take women’s reports of pain as seriously as they should. Nonetheless, if something feels wrong, speak up. And continue to speak up even if a care provider dismisses your concerns. Your experience of pain is worth taking seriously—even if you or your care provider expect you should have none of it.

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