There are two major categories of c-section anesthesia: regional anesthesia and general anesthesia. Regional anesthesia, which includes spinal blocks and epidurals, numbs the lower half of the body and allows the patient to remain conscious for the birth. In contrast, general anesthesia is usually reserved for emergency c-section procedures, as it causes the patient to fall asleep, missing the birth of her baby. The safety and comfort of the patient as well as the progression of labor will determine which type of c-section anesthesia is used.
Spinal blocks and epidurals, both regional anesthesia, are the most commonly performed types of c-section anesthesia. Both involve placing the anesthetic into the lower back, near or against the spinal cord, and both successfully numb the body from the lower chest through the feet. They both also enable the patient to stay conscious for the duration of the birth, allowing her to bond with the baby.
Spinal blocks are more easily performed than epidurals, as they involve a needle injection of the anesthesia into the lower back. The anesthesia diffuses, reaching the spinal cord and quickly acting to numb the lower half of the body. Due to the simple nature of their procedure, spinal blocks begin acting sooner than epidurals for pain relief or numbness.
An epidural procedure is slightly more complex than a spinal block because it involves inserting a plastic tube, called an epidural catheter, into the lower back. The anesthesia flows through the tube more gradually, allowing for more precision control. While an epidural usually takes longer to perform and start to act, its pain relieving effects extend for a much longer period of time. Spinal blocks are able to successfully numb the patient for the c-section procedure but they wear off soon and are ineffective against postoperative pain. As a result, epidurals are generally better for providing extended relief from pain after the c-section surgery has been completed.
General anesthesia is the other main type of c-section anesthesia, and it causes the patient to stay asleep during the c-section. It is most commonly the first choice of anesthesia for patients who have certain infections, neurological illnesses, or abnormal bleeding or clotting that could make regional anesthesia risky. One of the potential risks of general anesthesia is difficulty placing the breathing tube, or endotracheal tube, into the airway before the operation due to the effects that pregnancy has on the body. Despite this risk, general anesthesia is often the best c-section anesthesia for emergency situations.