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Can an Epidural Cause Birth Defects?

Published on April 3, 2023

The labor and delivery process is extremely painful, often to the point that mothers compare all other types of pain to this excruciating natural process. An epidural is a modern form of pain management for laboring mothers used in about ¾ of births in the United States. An epidural efficiently blocks pain signals from below the waist, allowing a woman to experience the labor process without the debilitating pain associated with natural childbirth. While this makes childbirth much more bearable and some studies show that an increased ability to communicate during childbirth helps decrease the risk of maternal mortality, many women are not fully informed about the risks of an epidural to their baby during the labor and delivery process.

Can an Epidural Cause Birth Defects?

How Does an Epidural Work?

An epidural is a type of regional anesthesia used to numb laboring women below the waist. A medical professional injects the numbing medication—either lidocaine, bupivacaine, or Chlorprocaine—directly into the mother’s spine within a fluid-filled cavity called the epidural space. The medication blocks the nerve signals that would otherwise alert the brain to pain. Because the medication wears off, a small catheter is left in place in the mother’s spine to administer further doses or to provide a constant drip. Fewer than 1 out of 100 laboring mothers require additional pain medication if they’ve had an epidural.

While the vast majority of epidurals work as expected and the outcome is a pain-free birthing experience and a healthy baby, there are known risks and side effects associated with epidurals that all laboring mothers should understand so they can give full informed consent before undergoing an epidural procedure.

Potential Risky Side Effects of an Epidural

Like all medications, the process and medication used in an epidural can cause side effects in some women. Some of these side effects may impact fetal health, including the following:

  • A sudden drop in the laboring mother’s blood pressure which causes a lack of oxygen flow to the baby’s brain. About 14% of women experience a drop in blood pressure after an epidural requiring immediate treatment
  • About 23% of women experience a fever after an epidural, including sudden spikes of high temperature that can result in a baby born with breathing problems, a low Apgar score, and low muscle tone
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Problems urinating
  • Slow birthing process

More than any other side effect, a prolonged labor process is the riskiest side effect of an epidural. Because of an epidural’s numbing effect, a woman’s uterus may not contract effectively and her ability to strongly push may be compromised. Because the labor and delivery process is stressful for babies and every contraction temporarily restricts oxygen flow to an infant’s brain, prolonged labor places a baby at an increased risk of birth injuries. It also increases the chances that a doctor may choose to use forceps or a vacuum extractor to assist the mother with pushing. These tools also come with risks of birth injuries.

Birth Injuries Associated with Epidurals, Forceps, and Vacuum Extractors

A lengthy, drawn-out labor process increases an infant’s chance of oxygen deprivation which could result in the following:

  • Bleeding in the brain and brain injury
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Erb’s Palsy
  • Developmental delays
  • Infant coma or death

Forceps and vacuum extractors used to pull infants from the birth canal when a mother cannot efficiently push the baby out may result in the following injuries:

  • Bruising and red forceps marks
  • Brain bleeds
  • Fractures of the clavicle and shoulder
  • Facial injuries

No one expects the joyous birth of a new baby to end in a serious birth injury, but when medical professionals fail to fully inform a patient of the risks of interventions such as an epidural during labor and a baby suffers harm, the parents may be entitled to financial compensation to facilitate medical care for their newborn plus compensation pain and suffering. A Phoenix medical malpractice lawyer can help to represent your family’s best interests.

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