An epidural is a type of anesthesia that is often used to numb the pain of labor and childbirth. During this procedure, an anesthesiologist will inject numbing agents into the space around the dura, or sac that contains the spinal fluid. Although they are not very common, as with any medication, some epidural side effects can occur. The most common side effect is a severe drop in blood pressure. Other common epidural side effects include delayed labor, uncontrollable shivering, fever, an epidural headache, nausea, itching, and a backache.
Often, a severe and rapid drop in blood pressure can occur when a patient is given an epidural. If a drop in blood pressure happens during labor or child birth, blood and oxygen supplies could be shut off from the placenta, which could put the baby at risk. To prevent this low blood pressure, or hypotension, a patient's blood pressure is carefully monitored, and intravenous fluids are given.
Another of the most common epidural side effects for pregnant mothers is delayed labor. This typically happens because the muscles making up the floor of the pelvis are numbed, making it very difficult to push. When this happens, tools such as forceps may then be necessary to help extract the baby, and these tools could possibly be damaging to the infant.
Uncontrollable shivering often occurs during labor or childbirth, regardless of whether any medication has been given. The chances of this happening after being given an epidural, however, increase dramatically. Although this is typically harmless, it is one of the more annoying epidural side effects. Many times, this shivering can be stopped by keeping the patient warm using blankets and, sometimes, with massage.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, patients receiving an epidural may begin to develop a high fever. The medication injected into the patient does affect the person's ability to sweat, and if there is not enough sweat, the body can not release enough body heat to keep the patient cool, resulting in a fever. To stay cool, many patients will chew on ice chips, or make use of ice packs and fans.
An epidural headache is not very common, but this epidural side effect does happen in a small percentage of patients. It is often characterized by an excruciating headache, and can possibly include vision and hearing problems, along with a tender neck. This is caused when the needle accidentally punctures the sac that holds the spinal fluid, resulting in this fluid leaking and a drop in pressure around the brain.
Although an epidural headache typically goes away on its own, sometimes a blood patch is used as a treatment. During this procedure, blood is taken from the patient and injected near the site of the epidural. The injected blood will clot, acting as a plug for the hole that the spinal fluid is leaking from.
Nausea, itching, and a slight back ache are a few more common epidural side effects. Although the nausea does not last long, it can be uncomfortable, and a patient may even start vomiting. Itching associated with epidurals does not usually indicate a serious problem, but it can get quite annoying, and sometimes other medications can be given to relieve it. A mild backache is also sometimes reported on and around the injection site of an epidural, and it can last anywhere from a few days to a few years.