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Epidural Injuries During Delivery

Many expectant mothers, especially those experiencing their first pregnancy, prefer to give birth as naturally as possible. To them, this means avoiding epidural injections altogether. Some of these women, however, change their minds immediately before — or during — labor. Others understand that an epidural could allow them to experience the birth more fully while reducing pain.

Before you decide to have an epidural, it is important to understand the risks involved. What injuries can epidurals cause? Are epidurals safe for infants? Who is responsible for an epidural injection mistake?

What Is Epidural Anesthesia?

Epidural anesthesia is a regional anesthetic given to mothers to provide pain relief during labor. When effective, it prevents nerve impulses to the lower parts of a mother's spine, thus reducing pain.

There are two types of epidural anesthesia:

  • Regular epidural: An anesthesiologist will ask you to arch your back and will insert a needle near your spinal cord in your lower back. You will receive a combination of a narcotic such as morphine and anesthetic to reduce the amount of anesthesia and possible negative effects.
  • Combined spinal-epidural (CSE): Known as a "walking epidural," this type of epidural involves injecting a starting dose of anesthetic and narcotic in the intrathecal area of the spinal cord (beneath the spinal cord's membrane). This type of epidural allows for more flexibility, including the option to have a regular epidural if the initial dose is not effective enough.

Why Do Women Choose to Receive Epidurals?

More than 50 percent of all U.S. women choose to receive epidural injections. There are many reasons for this. First, epidurals reduce the pain women feel during childbirth, which can include immense back pain. Second, most women find that they are more alert during labor because they have received an epidural; they do not feel as much pain, fatigue and frustration. Even women who must deliver by C-section can be awake after receiving epidurals.

Problems With Epidurals

Unfortunately, for some women, choosing to have an epidural has an opposite result. Instead of helping them enjoy the delivery and reducing the chance for post-traumatic stress, the epidural becomes the reason for the stress.

Why do some women have success with epidurals and others do not? While some bodies are more receptive to anesthesia in general, the chances of success often depend on the doctor who gives the anesthesia and those who monitor it. Failure to monitor the anesthetic can lead to a rapid and significant drop in blood pressure, which could cause serious injury if not treated immediately.

Similarly, if you do not change positions in bed while you have the epidural, labor may stop altogether, causing additional action and unnecessary forceps use, vacuum extraction or even a C-section. Epidurals can also cause:

  • Severe headaches
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Nausea and shivering
  • Variability in fetal heart rate
  • Improper positioning of the infant
  • Respiratory depression in the infant
  • Permanent nerve damage to the mother
  • Spike in temperature (fever)

The last complication is particularly alarming. A recent study out of Boston found that epidural-related fevers can lead to problems in infants, including poor muscle tone, difficulty breathing, seizures and low Apgar scores (which measure an infant's general health).

According to the study of 3,200 women, more than 19 percent who chose to have an epidural developed a fever. This number is alarming when compared with 2.4 percent of other women. Women with fevers were approximately three times more likely to give birth to infants who needed resuscitation measures.

What If You or Your Child Is Injured From an Epidural?

Epidurals can help lead to positive birth experiences and each mother must evaluate the rewards with the risks. If you are injured by an epidural injection, however, you may be able to sue the medical professionals responsible for your care.

Like any medical injury case, there are certain things you must prove before you can bring a birth injury lawsuit. Questions to ask include: Was your injury the result of a medical professional's actions or inactions? Would you have suffered the same result had those actions not occurred or are you in a worse place now because of them? Could something else have likely caused your injury or your child's injury?

A birth injury attorney can help you answer these questions and evaluate whether you have a case for medical malpractice. If you do, you may be able to recover compensation for your medical bills, pain and suffering, and other damages caused by the epidural injection error.

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