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An Epidural For the Lady?

An Epidural For the Lady?

“Give me the f*@k!n epidural!”

The above quote, to the best of my recollection, comes from the film The 40-Year Old Virgin, but it just as well could originate from any number of films involving birth and labor and the immediate need for some relief from the discomfort that so often accompanies this painful miracle. For the uninitiated, an epidural is an injection of a local anesthetic into the epidural space around the spinal chord to numb the pain and discomfort of labor and childbirth. There are two kinds of epidurals – conventional, which involves blocking all sensation from the waist down, and something called a “walking epidural” which uses a combination of local anesthetics and painkillers in a relatively low dosage. Many women who have experienced the joys and ardors of childbirth swear by the miracles of the epidural (more than 2/3 of mothers have submitted to epidurals), whereas others swear it off and contend that the administration of an epidural degrades the birth experience and endangers both mother and baby. Two camps, two distinct viewpoints, one objective – get the baby out safely.

While the pro-epidural camp includes most physicians, western medicine adherents, and mothers who are deathly afraid of pain, those who reject the practice include individuals who embrace a very natural childbirth, along with those who have considerable concerns about their safety. The administration of an epidural, in the opinion of many natural childbirth proponents, creates an escalating effect necessitating additional interventions and intrusions: IVs, catheters, blood pressure monitors, and electronic fetal monitors. All of which produce an unnatural experience and reinforce the over-medicalization of motherhood. However, a new look at the epidural procedure, by writer Melinda Wenner Moyer for Slate.com, provides a perspective that largely reinforces the usage of of epidurals. In an opinion piece that is sure to rile many who shun the procedure, Moyer makes a case for epidurals and claims that the concerns voiced by natural birthers are exaggerated. Some anesthesiologists have published books about why women should embrace epidurals, arguing that they might even be beneficial because they reduce the baby’s exposure to labor-pain-induced stress hormones.

While there exists a mountain of research and studies, a definitive answer as to whether epidurals pose a sizable risk to mothers and their babies seems elusive. Moyer admits as much, and speaks to the inherent difficulties in arriving at a conclusion:

“How can scientists tease out the cause-and-effect here? Ideally, they would split laboring women into two groups at random, giving one epidurals and the other no pain medication, and then watch what happens. But most doctors agree that it would be unethical to withhold medication from laboring women in the name of science.”

So the answer is likely no answer, other than to each his/her own and doing the research and honoring your own conviction are likely the best advise to follow. While epidurals do provide some much needed relief for mothers contending with the rigors of childbirth, as with any medical procedure or meddling, there exists a risk…even if it is a small one. What has been your experience with epidurals? Do you feel childbirth and epidurals go together like spring and flowers, of more like oil slicks and pristine beaches? Please share.

Read more: Babies, Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Family, Gynecology, Obstetrics, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, Women's Health,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

65 comments

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5:56PM PST on Feb 26, 2013

It was natural and no drugs all the way for me, I survived :)

10:18PM PDT on Sep 4, 2012

not easy to say whether or not it's a good choice? Well here's one way of looking at it. Get 100 women who use an epidural for birth, then get 100 who go natural. In the epidural camp 40 or more will end up with a c-section. 1 of those women will experience the epidural failing - for some it will be a medical emergency, for others it will be sorted by the addition of more drugs or simple body positioning to get the drug right into the spine. Of those, 8 babies will need to be resuscitated. Those who go on and complete the epidural labor naturally, many babies will suffer fetal distress. Many will have labor slowed or halted, and require an ARM or pitocin to get labor happening. 20 will have a giant episiotomy and then a ventouse vacuum used or forceps. About 10-20 more will have episiotomies without further intervention. 10 more will tear. Many will experience backaches for years after, and blood pressure problems. 2 will have a migraine in the day after as a result of spinal fluid leaking into her brain. Some will develop blood clots and possibly die within the years following the birth. And for all that, for up to 15 women the epidural will fail, be it completely or down one side.

Compare that to the natural birth without any drugs. The difference is STARK. It's black and white - an epidural birth is as unnatural as it gets. After experiencing both, and I started looking into epidurals to see if my experience and the affects it had on my daughter were common, I started

6:43AM PDT on Sep 4, 2012

"Women have had their power taken away by hospitals and most are not confident that they can make it through labor."
Hear ye, Hilary E.! Doctors and other medical professionals have often yielded power over their patients of all genders for centuries. People have a right to know their options and to understand, as much as they want and are able to, what is happening with their bodies.

12:27PM PDT on Apr 6, 2012

interesting, thank you..

12:25PM PDT on Apr 6, 2012

interesting, thank you.

9:11AM PST on Feb 16, 2012

everything has pros/cons ... i for one, don't take pain well... if i felt it were safe enough I would probably opt to have one in the event i were to have a child lol

7:13PM PST on Feb 13, 2012

Thanks for sharing your birthing stories and opinions. It has proved very interesting.

7:51PM PST on Feb 10, 2012

While there is certainly compassionate appropriate use of pain medication in childbirth, there is definitely an overuse of drugs in the birth experience. Women have had their power taken away by hospitals and most are not confident that they can make it through labor. In other developed countries (like the netherlands) where natural birth is much much mroe commen women also feel confident that their bodies are designed to give birth and therefore go into it with an expectation to go naturally. Every persons situation is different and no woman should ever feel guilty about using pain meds or having a c-section but know that if you educate and prepare youself you can have an amazing birth experience. I had a natural home birth after 33 hours of labor and it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Nothing can beat the natural endorphin high that comes with natural labor.

6:22PM PST on Feb 7, 2012

Ta.

10:32PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

It's certainly not a black-and-white issue. My PLAN was to do things as naturally as possible, and I had the support and guidance of a wonderful team of midwives. But after being 2 weeks overdue w/ no signs of labor, I decided it was best/safer to be induced. And as most people who've had the pitocin can attest, the contractions come on hard and fast! And since I was already hooked up to IVs and monitors, all those strategies I'd learned for managing the pain were mostly useless-couldn't move around, change my position much, get into a warm tub w/ jets, etc..The contractions were so intense and there was no time to recover between them, I just began to curl up into a totally incoherent ball of pain. So yes, with the last of my ability to speak, I demanded the freaking epidural!(and here I'd thought I had a high pain tolerance!) I'm really glad I did, because things became more complicated. I was in active labor for 2 hours-I wasn't so numb that I couldn't feel when to push, and I was doing my best, but something was wrong. Turned out my son had the cord wrapped around his neck and was "stuck"-they had to break out the vacuum extractor, which fortunately worked-we narrowly avoided an emergency C-section, but it was rough-I was cut/torn, the midwife had to reach in and untangle him as he was crowning, and, boy am I glad I didn't have to feel all that and that I was able to have some presence of mind during the whole process! If I do it again, I'll attempt to go as natural as po

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