THE DARK SIDE OF EPIDURALS

I would dare say almost every adult person in Western civilization has heard the word epidural. And while most probably don’t know a lot about it, I would bet most everyone would say it is used to relieve pain during childbirth. This seems to be common knowledge. But there is a dark side of epidurals that seems to be much less common knowledge. It seems to be the kind of knowledge you need to actively seek out because people hardly talk about it.
I am not trying to convince anyone to use or not use an epidural. That is a decision only you can make for yourself. I am simply putting my experience out there in hopes that it will help you become more informed so you can make the best decision for you and your baby.
The proceeding information is my own knowledge and personal experience. I am not a doctor, so please consult with your own doctor before making any decision regarding your labor and delivery!
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The first time I was pregnant, I was pretty sure I was going to get an epidural. I had no adversity to using the miracle of modern medicine to relieve the excruciating pain of natural childbirth. All along, my plan was to continue through labor as long as I felt able, and then request an epidural when things became too painful.
Months before my due date, I went through the childbirth preparation class that my hospital offered. Among other things, one of the topics covered in the class was pain relief options available during childbirth. The options that were offered at my hospital at the time were epidurals and Nubain.
Nubain is an opiate narcotic pain reliever that is administered through an IV. It falls in a class similar to Morphine and Demerol. It seemed like most people in the class had not ever heard of Nubain, so the instructor spent some extra time talking about it. Some of the things we learned:
  • Nubain does not stop pain as an epidural does. Instead, it takes some of the edge off to make it more tolerable.
  • Nubain can cause unwelcome psychological effects on the mother such as dysphoria, increased anxiety, and confusion similar to being intoxicated.
  • Nubain should not be administered if you are close to pushing as it has serious side effects on newborns such as complications with breathing, central nervous system function, and neurological effects.
None of those things sounded appealing to me, and as a person who suffers from anxiety anyway, I did not need anything else to be anxious about. I didn’t need to have anxiety about possibly having anxiety, and especially didn’t need anxiety about potentially putting my baby at risk. I decided then that Nubain was not going to be an option for me.
We also learned about epidurals and how they block pain via medication pushed through a catheter inserted into the epidural space in your spine. Some of the things we learned:
  • Your husband or support person will have to leave the room while the anethesiologist is placing the epidural
  • It is not uncommon for women to experience intense headaches after having received an epidural
  • Once you get an epidural, you will be required to stay in bed and will not be permitted to walk around or birth in any position except on your back
  • You will receive fluids through an IV if you get an epidural
At this point in the class I was thinking: yes. Yes, please. None of that sounded as bad as the Nubain and definitely not as bad as what I was imagining natural childbirth pain would be.
I had a birth plan, a hospital bag check list, I attended the childbirth and breastfeeding classes, I read labor and delivery stories, and watched childbirth videos. In my mind, I had a plan, and I was prepared to see it through.

*Insert laughter and head-shaking of moms everywhere*

After my water broke (while I was eating dinner in a crowded restaurant on a Friday night), I went to the hospital and was induced with pitocin. After 18 hours of labor, I was ready for the epidural. I had to wait a while for the anesthesiologist to get to me because he was called in to an emergency C-section. When he arrived, my husband was asked to leave the room (which we were told in advance was going to happen).
The nurse had me sit on the edge of the bed with my feet on a stool and then asked my to reach down and hug my legs. This is obviously challenging for an enormous pregnant person with a huge round belly to navigate around. As the anesthesiologist inserted the needle into my spine, I heard in my ears the most distinct, unforgettable crackling, crunching sound. To this day, I have no idea what that sound was or if it is normal, but it thoroughly freaked me out then and still does now.
After that joyous experience had come to an end, the nurse had to insert a urinary catheter which was just the icing on the cake. After a while, it was evident that I could no longer feel my contractions on the left side of my body, but could still feel them on the right.

FUN FACT! It turns out that it is possible for epidurals to affect only one side of your body.

Who knew? Not this girl.
Yep. I had no idea that was possible. You would think maybe if you were only feeling contractions on one side of your body that would mean you’re experiencing less pain. False. That was actually much worse for me. On top of being in pain, I was confused about what was happening with my body. I had a million thoughts racing through my head: What is going on? Is this normal? Is my baby OK? How is this affecting my baby? I am not going to be able to do this without pain relief. Of course all of that caused my anxiety to escalate.
The anesthesiologist came back and removed the epidural and placed a new one. Which was the same song and dance as before except I was in so much pain at that point that I was shaking uncontrollably. My body tensed with every contraction. The nurse and anesthesiologist reminded me 400 times to try to stay still and finally it was done.
Not long after, I finally had some relief. Thank you, God. My contraction pain had basically disappeared, and I thought to myself: Awesome. I can rest a little bit, try to get myself back together, and proceed with getting this baby out.
Less than an hour after the second epidural was placed, my nurse came in and had me lay on my side. She said they were seeing some concerning numbers with my baby’s heartbeat on my fetal monitor. Shortly after that, an incredible number of people came rushing in to my room. I was immediately scared and had no idea what was going on. An oxygen mask was urgently placed on my face, and I remember staring up at my bewildered husband who was searching the room of frantic nurses and doctors to figure out what was happening. Someone in the room stated that I was being taken back immediately for an emergency C-section. Nurses started disconnecting cords and moving my IV pole to wheel me to the OR.

That was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

I knew something bad was happening, but I didn’t know what. Something was wrong with my baby. Something extremely serious was happening, and my husband and I were powerless to stop it.
After what felt like an eternity, things in the room calmed down a little and I heard someone say “It is bouncing back. Let’s give it a minute.” At this point, there was still no time for anyone to explain to me or my husband exactly what was happening. The nurse flipped my on my other side again and then it seemed the danger had passed.
The nurse explained that my blood pressure had suddenly plummeted and my baby’s heart rate slowed significantly. Apparently this is a very common side effect of epidurals that I was completely unaware of.
After that, the doctor turned my epidural off, and I was thrust into the next terrifying situation: I had to deliver my baby with no pain relief and was completely unprepared to do so. Remember when I said my plan all along was to have an epidural? That was true. So I never looked into natural birth. I did not research coping mechanisms, tips, or anything at all regarding birth without an epidural. It was NEVER part of my plan.
Not researching all options was my biggest mistake. I didn’t think my epidural plan would fail, so I never prepared for a back-up plan.

HUGE ROOKIE MISTAKE.

After several more hours of labor, I was in rough shape. I was in excruciating pain, exhausted, and terrified. I was begging – literally sobbing and begging to anyone who would listen – for a C-section. The good news is that while I was in absolutely miserable shape, my baby was doing well and all of the numbers were steady. Over my sobbing, begging, bargaining, and screaming, my husband and nurse reminded me that I did not really want a C-section and there was no medical reason to have one. I was going to have to ride it out.
After realizing that despite how much I pleaded I would not be getting a C-section, I begged for pain relief. I was in such bad shape that despite my previous terror about taking Nubain, I begged for the Nubain. BEGGED.
The nurse gave the Nubain through an IV and I kept waiting and waiting for it to have some effect. My contractions were horrendous and there was almost no break in between. I would barely catch my breath from one to the next. I remeber screaming that it was not working and I was still in extreme pain.
Less than 30 minutes after, (felt a lot like 3000 minutes), I had an unstoppable, unmistakable urge to push. It was truly just my body tensing and pushing almost completely on it’s own. I thought about the Nubain because I knew it had been only a short while since it was injected. I screamed that I was pushing and the nurse told me to stop immediately. There was no stopping it.
My nurse said that my doctor was not there yet and all of the hospital doctors were in other deliveries. She checked my cervix and announced that the baby was crowning. She then told my husband that it was likely she and him would have to deliver my baby without my doctor.

Enter even more terror.

One nurse held one of my legs, my husband held the other, and my nurse stood ready to catch my baby when my doctor and the NICU team came running in. Three pushes later my baby was out, and I was waiting to hear that beautiful newborn cry that signals everything is OK. My baby was taken immediately for evaluation because he was slightly premature and because I had been given Nubain too close to delivery. Thank God he was perfectly healthy and did not show signs of respiratory, neurological, or central nervous system distress.
I have almost no memory from the birth until the following day. Now thinking about it years later, and after having gone through a second birth with no pain medication and no Nubain, I strongly feel the Nubain was the reason for my almost complete memory loss.
Another issue we suffered through after delivery was problems breastfeeding. Impaired breastfeeding is another side effect of epidurals that I was unaware of. I attended breastfeeding classes while pregnant, and I was determined to make it work. The issues started immediately when my baby would not latch during the Golden Hour after being born. It continued to be a problem during our stay at the hospital. We met with lactation consultants regularly but finally had to give my son formula in a dropper to supplement because his latch was almost nonexistent.
After bringing him home, we visited our local lactation consultant’s office (which was a 50 minute drive from our house) almost every day. Nothing seemed to help. I took supplements, I avoided certain foods, I pumped after breastfeeding, drank tons of water, bought Mother’s Milk tea. I did absolutely everything I read about online, and followed the advice of others. Nothing helped. Meanwhile we continued to supplement formula with a dropper which was an exhausting task because our son just did not want to eat.
Meanwhile, our baby was not working back up to his birth weight as expected. This meant taking him to the pediatrician everyday so he could be weighed and checked. This was obviously an extremely stressful time for my husband and I. First time parents, not getting much sleep, constantly trying to work any small amount of food into our newborn, driving to the lactation consultant, the pediatrician, and me trying to nurse and pump. Actually I want to cry now just thinking of it. On top of all of that I was experiencing a shocking and difficult bought with postpartum anxiety.
After 3 weeks of miserable stress for all involved, I finally stopped trying to nurse. It was a weighted, difficult, and heartbreaking decision for me. I felt like a failure. A failure as a mom, a failure as a woman. I was devastated, but I could see it was not working despite every possible effort.
The fantastic news is that my son eventually started eating well from a bottle and began to grow as expected. He is now almost three years old and thriving. He is an amazing, joyous, sweet boy that I thank God for everyday.
I love my son more than life itself, but I have serious regrets about his delivery.
I don’t blame you if you skimmed a bit through that long story. To recap everything and to help you understand why I made the decision to go all natural with my second pregnancy, here’s the short version:

Side effects I experienced from pain management medications:

  • Epidural placement sound (very disturbing to me…. has anyone else experienced this?)
  • Inadequate pain relief of first epidural (worked on only one side)
  • Enduring a second epidural placement
  • Hypotension (serious drop in blood pressure)
  • Baby’s heart rate slowing significantly (due to hypotension)
  • Close call with emergency c-section (due to the above)
  • Inadequate pain relief from Nubain (had no notable effect)
  • Memory loss from Nubain
  • Impaired and ultimately failed breastfeeding (common epidural side effect)
And on top of all of that, the pure mental trauma that experience left me with. I deeply regret that I had not done more research on epidurals. I also should have read more women’s stories who had an epidural birth, and I wish I would have put in the time to become more informed about the potential side effects of epidurals.

My biggest mistake was not formulating a back-up plan just in case.

That entire experience affected me so much that when I became pregnant with my second baby, I went though with natural childbirth free of any pain relief medications. I did not have an epidural or Nubain. I would not consider it. That turned out to be a much better experience all around. I now have enough information on both experiences to say going without the epidural and Nubain is absolutely, unequivocally the best choice for me.
I hope this helps you gain some real-life insight on experience with pain medication during childbirth. Above all else, remember: you’ve got this!
Mom on!
Jillian

 

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