The question of whether a pregnant (or laboring) mom should get an epidural is an age-old conundrum. There are plenty of benefits to the procedure, of course, like a mom being able to rest during labor or helping to relax her body so the contractions can do their work.
Many women are afraid of experiencing all the sensations that labor brings. And let's be honest: it can hurt! So an epidural often sounds like a great idea. A bit of rest, taking some pressure off, and maybe even the ability to enjoy the birth. What's not to love?
But there are also some side effects to epidurals that most healthcare providers might gloss over. And even moms who have been there themselves—and know what labor and delivery is like—might caution an expecting mom against getting an epidural. Why? Because some of the side effects can wind up being more intimidating than they thought.
Whether it's something minor yet unexpected or a serious condition that is so not normal, a lot can happen when a mom gets an epidural. To cover all of it, medical facts included, here are 15 unexpected side effects of an epidural, plus the five that are totally not normal.
20 Feeling Kind Of Lightheaded
After a whole nine months (give or take) of pregnancy, you likely have plenty of strange symptoms. From cramps that won't go away to the feeling of tiny feet lodged in your ribcage, there's a lot to complain about. But once labor starts up and you get an epidural, one thing that you should tell your care provider about is if you begin to feel lightheaded.
You might not think feeling dizzy is a side effect of an epidural, but according to the UK National Health Service, or NHS, it is. In fact, it's a symptom of low BP, which is a direct result of the epidural's function.
19 Can't Feel When You Need To Go
Most moms recognize that an epidural is meant to relieve pain, particularly in the area of your uterus! But what they don't often consider is that loss of feeling in their uterus and below can mean they don't know when they need to use the bathroom! And although sources, such as US Pregnancy, suggest that you may not need a catheter for that purpose until a few hours after getting an epidural, most hospitals insert one immediately.
If they didn't, you might wind up having an accident mid-labor because a common yet unexpected side effect of the procedure is a loss of bladder control. Some moms can feel it, but most moms can't!
18 Needing Some Help With The Bathroom
When you're lying flat on your back in a hospital bed, thanks to the epidural you just got, it's an unwelcome feeling to realize you need to use the restroom. But for moms who don't wind up feeling numb in that area, you will wind up with the somewhat unexpected side effect of needing help getting to the bathroom.
This is also true afterward; odds are, you will need a nurse or orderly to help get to the restroom and do your business. But if you can't feel anything down there and labor continues for a while, you will end up needing that catheter. It sounds intimidating, but it's just one of those things most moms wind up needing.
17 Not Normal: Still Feeling A Lot Of Pain
The one biggest argument in favor of moms getting epidurals during labor is that it can help them relieve pain. And that's huge! We're about to give birth to our baby, we don't want to worry about how much it hurts. But for some moms, there will still be pain even after the epidural kicks in.
According to the NHS, "The epidural may not block all your pain. You may be offered an additional or alternative pain relief method." Say what? After all that, we can't expect 100 percent pain relief from the epi? Talk about unexpected! But in truth, I've been there, and so have a lot of other moms, further proving there are no guarantees in childbirth.
16 A Reaction To What's Inside
Moms might think of "an epidural" as one type of pain relief solution. But it's actually a catch-all term for any type of pain relief that's delivered through an IV in your back. So while all epidurals are inserted the same way, they contain different "ingredients."
And just like the ingredients in your epidural can have different side effects when put in a regular IV, so they can via an epidural. The itching we mentioned earlier? That's actually a side effect of an allergic reaction to what's in your epi. Therefore, other allergic reactions to, say, fentanyl (a common "ingredient" in epidurals) can occur, such as hives, chest pain, rashes, puffiness, and others, per Mayo Clinic.
15 Labor Can Also Take A Break
Most mamas are told they can't get an epidural until they're a certain number of centimeters dilated. And as all mamas know, dilation is the key to being totally ready for the next stage of labor! But something unexpected that often happens to laboring moms who choose an epidural is that their labor slows or stops completely.
According to American Pregnancy, an epidural can cause labor to slow down and make contractions weaker. While that might be a welcome change in events for a mom who's feeling worn down, it does open the door for even more undesirable side effects to occur...
14 More Interventions Needed
For a lot of ladies, getting an epidural leads to labor slowing, we've established that. But not many healthcare providers will likely be willing to just wait things out. Especially if your baby is showing signs of needing a hurried exit, your L&D team will probably want to keep things moving, regardless of what effect the epidural is having on your labor progress.
Then you might wind up needing additional interventions, such as Pitocin, to encourage the contractions to keep progressing. Clearly, that's an undesirable and unexpected side effect of something that's meant to help make labor easier and even faster for moms.
13 Not Normal: Numb Areas That Stick Around
If you're in labor, not feeling a thing, you might just be tempted to take a smiley selfie to capture the rapturous experience. But later? It's rare, but that numbness can stick around. NHS says that in rare cases, an epidural "can lead to permanent loss of feeling or movement in, for example, one or both legs." The bad news doesn't stop there, however.
American Pregnancy also highlights that "in rare instances, permanent nerve damage may result in the area where the catheter was inserted," meaning you could wind up with permanent numbness in your back that never recovers. And although it's unexpected, moms like me can vouch for it being totally possible, and maybe even more common than doctors think.
12 Feeling Crazy Itchy All Over
Just like with other meds, it's possible for women to respond differently to the epidural. The main reason why reactions vary is because of the meds inside the epidural. Depending on what type of combination it is, the epidural may cause you to feel super itchy all over, a wildly unexpected symptom.
You might think you're going crazy, but it's just a reaction to what's in your epidural, which is essentially an IV in your back. And the NHS says that you can either receive something to ease the itching, or your L&D team can swap the med in your epidural and hope the itching lets up.
11 I Think I'm Gonna Hurl
NHS highlights that feeling sick with an epidural is less common than feeling queasy with other types of pain relief. Still, it's something that can happen, even if it's unexpected for most moms. Low BP can cause you to feel nauseous, so the solution is to either take anti-nausea measures or try and bolster your BP, which could also require other interventions.
Also, a lot of moms report feeling nauseous when they're going through the transition, one of the final stages of labor. That means you could be feeling sick to your tummy more than once and for more than one reason, making it tough to sort out what the cause is!
10 It's A Pain In The Noggin
Epidurals are supposed to lessen or eliminate pain, so it's sort of unexpected that they would actually cause a headache. But per the NHS, "severe headache can be caused if the bag of fluid that surrounds the spine is accidentally punctured," which sounds super serious, and for good reason.
Therefore, it's unexpected that a mom will feel a severe headache during labor, but it is an uncommon and quite worrisome side effect of an epidural. The invasive treatment is none too enjoyable, either, although there are some minor techniques that can help ease the pain, too. But your anesthetist will figure that out if this happens to you!
9 Not Normal: There Are 'Windows' Of Breakthrough Pain
Most moms expect an epidural to give them a welcome numbing against the pain of childbirth. But for a lot of us, an epidural simply doesn't work well. And it might be inserted properly, making it even more unexpected that "windows" of breakthrough pain appear.
It's uncommon, to be sure, but it happened to me, and American Pregnancy confirms that this happens, saying "Some women complain of being able to feel pain, or they feel that the drug worked better on one side of the body." One study by Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology confirms that "despite apparently proper placement, approximately 5% to 8% of epidural blocks may provide incomplete analgesia of this sort," calling a half-functioning epidural an "asymmetric block."
8 Starting To Feel Sleepy
Although a lot of moms swear by an epidural so that they can get some much-needed rest during labor, feeling sleepy is actually an unexpected yet worrisome sign. Although low BP can manifest in moms feeling nauseous or dizzy, it can also show up in the form of drowsiness.
Of course, some moms truly are just tired mid-labor! But if you have an epidural, your care team might want to keep a closer eye on your stats if you tell them you're feeling a little snoozy. It will also be evident that there's an issue if you begin to feel sleepy all of a sudden whereas you were feeling energized before!
7 Breathing Begins To Slow
Lots of laboring moms focus on their breathing. There are entire techniques and birthing classes based on specialized breathing techniques. But for some moms who have epidurals, slow breathing is actually a concern. It's uncommon, but the NHS notes that some of the ingredients in your epidural could cause you to slow your breathing.
However, most moms are being monitored pretty closely while they're laboring, so it's something your care team should catch. And it's not a huge emergency either; it is something that should be corrected, however. Fortunately, it could be as simple as swapping out the med that's in your epi.
6 Trouble Breathing In General
Many moms are familiar with the BP checks and other vital sign check-ins that laboring ladies receive. And that's all done for a reason. Sure, complications from epidurals are relatively rare, but that doesn't mean that the hospital or birth center won't be vigilant about keeping an eye on your vitals.
NHS also highlights "other very rare complications" of epidurals as "severe breathing difficulties." That could mean everything from shallow and labored breathing to more severe instances of breathing difficulties. Fortunately, most moms are already hooked up to pressure cuffs and heart rate monitors, and nurses will check her frequently to ensure she's breathing normally.
5 Not Normal: Feeling Numb When The Epidural Wears Off
For a lot of moms, the expectation is that the moment an epidural gets "turned on," the pain will go away, and the moment the epidural is "switched off," feeling will come back. But per the NHS, "temporary nerve damage" in the form of "loss of feeling or movement in parts of the lower body" is uncommon.
However, a more common (yet still unexpected!) symptom is "a small numb area with normal movement and strength." So while you might not be able to feel your little toe, you can still move it and be able to walk on it. NHS says that this will usually get better within a few days or weeks... But it could also take months.
4 Not Normal: Something Else Gets Under Your Skin
Hospitals are known for lots of things. Saving people's lives, for one! And also for delivering happy, healthy babies. But something they're also known for? Being seriously, truly grimy. There's a ton of bacteria present in all hospitals, which makes sense because sick people go there, but sometimes, that bacteria (and other stuff) gets into undesirable places.
NHS confirms that "an infection can occasionally develop around the skin next to the epidural tube." And it all depends on the environment you're in, how carefully the anesthesiologist handles their equipment, how healthy you are, and a ton of other factors. Thankfully, NHS notes, it's rare for the infection to spread.
3 What's That Ringing Noise?
New moms imagine all sorts of things, like their baby crying when they're in the shower when the little tot is happily snuggled up sleeping. It's just a mom thing! But one thing you shouldn't be hearing while awaiting your little one's arrival? Ringing in your ears.
It's an unexpected side effect, but American Pregnancy notes that having a ringing of the ears is a potential side effect of an epidural. Most of us think of our bodily fluids rushing around in our heads, and we imagine that's where the "ringing" comes from. And when you have an epidural, it affecting your BP could be causing that "ringing," too.
2 The Baby Has Feeding Issues
No new mom wants to hear that choosing to have an epidural could mean negative effects on her baby. We want our pain relief and a healthy and happy baby. Is that too much to ask? Most moms say no, but then, most moms don't expect that their epidural will impact their babies much, if at all. Some nurses might tell us the baby could be a little sleepy from the stuff in the epidural, but American Pregnancy says it goes farther than that.
Because an epidural can lead to further interventions, such as a forceps delivery or even an emergency C-section, it catches the blame for causing issues with newborns nursing and having healthy breathing and heart functions.
1 Feeling Literally Everything 'Down There'
Here's one "side effect" of an epidural that most medical resources don't talk about, but something that moms who have been there know all about. You might expect that because an epidural functions as a nerve block, you won't be able to feel anything "down there." But even if your epidural is properly placed and you don't have "windows" in the pain relief, you might still be able to feel things!
For example, you may still feel a slimy sensation as the baby comes out, or a bit of a tightening feeling as they leave the birth canal. It's super weird and definitely unexpected, but it's something most moms can attest to after the fact!