What Are the Complications Involved in an Epidural?
While an epidural gone wrong is not that common, here's what you should know about its complications.
Mum, the pain of childbirth can make you value an epidural as a scientific miracle. With it, labour pains are eased to a great extent. But that is if the epidural is well-administered. Unfortunately, an epidural gone wrong can be worse than a nightmare. So, what do you need to be warned about before going for an epidural?
Epidural gone wrong: How often does this happen?
One of the more recent horrifying stories that we learned about of an epidural gone wrong was where the mum was paralysed below the pelvic region. In another incident, the needle was stuck in the mum’s spine for 14 years. But these kinds of problems don’t occur often, explain the experts.
Dr James Lozada is the Obstetric Anaesthesiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He shares: “In general, it is extremely rare for a spinal or epidural needle to break. And even more rare for fragments to remain in the body. That has been reported less than five times in medical literature.”
Further, he also shares that: “Labour epidurals have greatly improved the safety of obstetric care. They provide excellent pain relief for millions of women each year. The chances of a broken needle being left in your back are exceedingly low. So, that should not deter you from having an epidural if that’s your desire.”
What do statistics reveal?
A study was conducted that analysed data from the Anaesthesia Quality Institute’s National Anaesthesia Clinical Outcomes Registry. The research considered 80,000 women who went through an epidural or spinal anaesthesia at the time of labour. Of these, less than three percent of women suffered complications. So, the statistics paint a picture of how an epidural is a safe procedure in normal circumstances.
Nevertheless, an epidural gone wrong can cause some complications that you should be aware of.
Complications that may arise due to an epidural gone wrong
1. Your blood pressure could drop
One of the most common problems that you may face in case of an epidural is a blood pressure drop. When the blood pressure drops it can also affect the blood flow to your baby. The American Pregnancy Association shares that in such cases, the mum is treated with IV fluids, oxygen, and possibly medications. Dr Lozada explains that he always talks about this with the patients.
2. You could suffer an inadvertent dural puncture or a ‘Wet Tap’
When the epidural needle accidentally punctures the membrane that covers your spinal cord, you could get an inadvertent dural puncture, also known as a ‘Wet Tap.’ This lets the spinal fluid leak out. The American Society of Anaesthesiologists explains that this can lead to terribly intense headaches. A procedure called a “blood patch” is used to treat the problem. This includes injecting your own blood into the hole. When the blood clots, the hole seals itself, preventing the fluid from leaking. The chances of this happening are as low as one percent in epidural deliveries.
3. You may contract infections
Dr Lozada explains that infections are not at all common. A study revealed that spinal epidural abscess formation took place only in 506,000 cases. Firstly, the needles in use are sterile. Secondly, prior to the insertion, your skin is cleaned with antiseptics. But this is considered to be a potential risk because whenever there’s an opening, it’s creating ground for bacteria to thrive. And the spine is directly connected to your brain. So, as rare as it may be, an infection to your spinal cord can be a risk to your life.
4. You may get fever
William Camann, M.D. is the director of obstetric anaesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He shares: “With first births, about 20 percent of mothers have an elevated temperature, because the first birth is usually the longest.” As explained by Camann, labour can go on for long time. And when an epidural is used for six hours or more, it can lead to fever. In such cases, mum and baby have to undergo a few tests and you may both receive an antibiotic treatment.
5. You may damage your nerves
While nerve damage sounds rather scary, Dr Lozada explains that nerve damage during epidural doesn’t last long. He says: “There’s a very small chance of nerve injury.This is almost always temporary, lasting a couple weeks.” Most often, this kind of damage will pass soon. However, in rare cases it may not even pass. But this is so rare that finding any statistical details for this is difficult.
Apart from these problems, you may also face minor issues like itchiness and nausea. But these are more of a passing phase.