The Biggest Epidural Myths, Busted

When it comes to words capable of sending chills down the spine of a pregnant woman, “epidural” is up there with “forceps” and “episiotomy.” But like many things, the reality of an epidural — which involves administering a drug into the space around the spinal cord during labor — isn’t as scary as it sounds. It’s time to bust the myths about epidurals, because there’s enough confusion and unnecessary fear around labor and childbirth already.

Myth: Epidurals can cause permanent back pain or paralysis

While it’s common to experience some discomfort after an epidural, it’s no different than what you might feel after an injection anywhere else in the body. “Any soreness typically lasts for about a day,” Dr. Midhat Qidwai, board-certified anesthesiologist, Medical Director of Perioperative Surgical Services, and President of the Medical Staff, with Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center, Torrance, tells SheKnows. “In the hands of an experienced physician anesthesiologist, complications from an epidural are very rare.”

Myth: Epidurals can slow down labor

The effects of an epidural in the first stage of labor (the onset of labor to full, 10 cm dilation of the cervix) varies — in some cases, labor isn’t affected at all; in others, it may slow down. It may also go faster! “These changes generally do not significantly affect the labor, the mother or the baby,” Mia Di Julio, MD, OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, tells SheKnows.

However, Dr. Di Julio says the second stage of labor (full dilation to delivery) may be slightly longer with an epidural, but there’s no evidence that this harms the mother or the baby. “If a woman is very numb, she might not push effectively,” she says. “In this situation, the strength of the epidural can be turned down to balance comfort and the ability to feel pressure, in order to be able to push effectively.”

Image: Steve Cole/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

Myth: You can only get an epidural in the early stages of labor

It’s possible to get an epidural during any stage of labor, says Dr. Di Julio. Remember, each labor situation — and each person’s experience of pain — is different. “Epidurals can be given in advanced labor, but would be ruled out if delivery is expected more quickly than the epidural can be administered,” she adds. “As a general guide, a first-time mom can get an epidural until she is fully dilated to 10cm; for a woman who has had a baby before, until she is dilated to 8 cm.”

Dr. Qidwai adds that it may become difficult for a mom to sit still for an epidural the stronger her contractions become, so it’s always easier to get an epidural earlier in labor. Plus, an earlier epidural means pain relief for longer.

Myth: Epidurals can increase the risk of a C-section

There’s no evidence that epidurals increase the risk of a C-section. Zilch. Nada. None.

Myth: Epidurals stop you from feeling anything

While an epidural takes away the pain of labor, it doesn’t take away all sensation. You’ll still feel your contractions, and you’ll still be able to move your lower body. It may feel numb, but you’ll still be able to push! And the dosing can be adjusted to provide more or less sensation.

pregnant woman with doctor
Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

Myth: You can’t walk after an epidural

This depends on the types of epidural offered at your hospital. “At our facility, we place walking epidurals,” says Dr. Qidwai. “The dosage of medication used is lower, the staff are trained to provide optimal care, and wireless monitoring equipment is used so the baby can be continuously monitored while the mother is moving around.” A walking epidural, also known as a combined spinal-epidural (CSE), should provide pain relief for 4-8 hours and allows more freedom to move and change positions with assistance, per American Pregnancy Association.

Myth: Epidurals spoil your overall birth experience

No matter how long you’ve prepared for giving birth, which may involve an incredibly detailed, well-thought-out birth plan, there are simply some things you can’t prepare for. Including how you’ll feel — particularly if it’s your first experience of childbirth. You might be determined to have a drug-free labor, then decide you want all the pain relief on offer (and then some). You might plan for a vaginal delivery and end up having a C-section. Don’t stress if things don’t go to plan; focus instead on doing what’s right for you and your baby.

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