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Challenging the Epidural Narrative: What the Recent Study Didn’t Tell You

by Ivy B

As a mother who has experienced the beauty and power of natural birth twice, I’ve felt firsthand the benefits of giving birth without drugs. Recently, I came across a National Geographic article claiming that epidurals significantly lower the risk of serious complications during childbirth going so far as to using “… Can Save Lives” in the title. While this might sound reassuring at first, it’s essential to review the facts more deeply and consider the potential downsides that the article glosses over.

doctor giving patient epidural for childbirth
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The Cascade of Interventions

One critical aspect often overlooked in discussions about epidurals is the “cascade of interventions.” This term describes a chain reaction where one medical intervention leads to another, increasing the likelihood of complications. For example, an epidural can slow down labor, which might necessitate the use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to speed things up. This can result in more intense contractions, higher stress for both mother and baby, and a greater chance of ending up with a cesarean section.

The Truth About Epidurals

Let’s examine some key points about epidurals and natural birth, backed by scientific research:

  1. Increased Risk of Cesarean Sections: Epidurals may carry a higher risk of cesarean delivery. A comprehensive study, Epidurals: Do They or Don’t They Increase Cesareans?, could not say that epidurals don’t increase the likelihood of instrumental delivery and cesarean section due to fetal distress.
  2. Impact on Labor Progression: Epidurals can significantly slow the second stage of labor. Research published in BMC Anesthesiology demonstrated that epidurals can prolong labor’s duration, increasing the need for interventions like forceps or vacuum extraction.
  3. Maternal and Neonatal Outcomes: While epidurals effectively relieve pain, they can lead to maternal fever, which can result in unnecessary antibiotic treatment for both the mother and newborn, as highlighted in a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
  4. Lower Apgar Scores and Increased NICU admissions: This study found that epidurals during labor increase the risk of low Apgar scores and NICU admissions for newborns, especially in full-term babies born without complications. This suggests the need for more research and greater awareness about the potential risks of epidurals.

Despite these findings, the original article asserts that “having an epidural lowers the risk of serious complications in the weeks following childbirth—by as much as 35 percent.” This claim is based on research from the University of Glasgow and the University of Bristol, which observed lower rates of complications such as blood clotting and sepsis among women who had epidurals. However, it’s important to consider that the study focused exclusively on maternal complications and did not address potential impacts on newborns.

Questionable Points in the Original Article

The original article mentions that epidurals can provide “important physiologic protections to people with underlying and perhaps undiagnosed medical conditions” by lowering stress hormone levels, blood pressure, and heart rate. While this might be true for some women, it doesn’t account for the broader implications of widespread epidural use.

From experience, I can tell you that my stress increased the moment I arrived at the hospital and my labor slowed as a result. First time mothers, in general, are expected to have longer labors, spending upwards of approximately 18 hours in childbirth. And this doesn’t account for the myriad of things that can slow labor, including an epidural.

Considering many doctors want you to deliver within 24 hours of water breaking, first-time moms who tend to experience naturally longer labors are at a disadvantage when it comes to timing.

Moreover, the article states, “In case of emergencies, epidurals also have the advantage of being localized and a safer alternative to general anesthesia—if the epidural was already in place when the emergency began.” This point, while valid, doesn’t address the fact that epidurals can lead to complications requiring emergency interventions in the first place.

The article also highlights that “epidurals can provide an opportunity for mothers in especially long labors to rest and regain their strength to potentially avoid a cesarean section.” However, it fails to mention that epidurals can prolong labor, increasing the likelihood of requiring additional interventions like forceps or vacuum extraction. And we circle back to the timing issue that can result in a c-section anyway.

Promoting Informed Choices

It’s crucial for expectant mothers to have access to accurate, comprehensive information about all birth options. Natural birth without drugs offers numerous benefits, including a shorter recovery time, a more active role in the birthing process, and a lower risk of the cascade of interventions.

However, it’s important to note that every birth is unique, and while epidurals may be the right choice for some, they are not inherently safer for everyone. My concern with the original article is that it feels like another tactic to scare women away from natural birth, rather than empowering them with all the facts.

Exploring Natural Birth Options

For those interested in natural birth, there are several approaches to consider:

  • Hypnobirthing: This technique uses self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques to help manage pain.
  • Water Birth: Laboring in water can provide natural pain relief and a soothing environment.
  • Continuous Labor Support: Having a midwife or doula can provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support during labor.

These methods can help manage pain and reduce the need for medical interventions, promoting a more positive and empowered birthing experience.

Respectful and Empowering

It’s essential to respect every woman’s choice regarding her birthing experience. If you choose to have an epidural, that’s your decision, and it should be supported. My goal is not to criticize but to provide a fuller picture so that women can make informed decisions based on all available information, not just the potential benefits.

Conclusion

Let’s move beyond fear and focus on empowerment. Whether you opt for an epidural or choose a natural birth, what’s most important is that you feel supported and informed in your decision. By understanding all the risks and benefits, we can work towards a birthing experience that is safe, fulfilling, and respectful of every mother’s unique journey.

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1 comment

Jessica June 7, 2024 - 11:41 am

I disagree with the article’s suggestion that epidurals are largely safe. My sister had complications from an epidural, which made me opt for natural births. I believe there needs to be more research and transparency about the risks.

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