Epidurals: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I’m pleased to host anesthesiologist and suspense author, H.S. Clark, as he discusses his thoughts on epidurals. Very informative post. I hope you’ll check out his medical thriller Secret Thoughts available on Amazon. 

On the morning on April 7, 1853, a little known innovative physician, Dr. John Snow, was called to Buckingham Palace to administer Chloroform anesthesia to Queen Victoria for the birth of her fourth child, Prince Leopold. The Prince was healthy, and the Queen did not feel the pain of childbirth. That was the beginning of the end for “natural” childbirth, and the dawn of modern anesthesia for labor and delivery.

Buckingham Palace
Now, 25% of mothers give birth by Caesarian section, and 75% of the remaining vaginal births receive either a spinal or epidural anesthetic, so that leaves less than 20% to experience “natural” childbirth. We know now that the designation “natural” does not mean medically superior. The pain and stress of labor and delivery raises maternal blood pressure, increases circulating adrenaline, impairs breathing, and interferes with muscle control and fetal descent, all to the detriment of both mom and her unborn baby. Pain also leads to expulsive deliveries that increase the occurrence and severity of pelvic lacerations.

We’ve now progressed from Chloroform to the use of epidural anesthesia. Small amounts of local anesthetic placed in the lower back near the spinal nerves set up a regional block of the bottom half of the body. It’s like two cops stopping all the highway traffic with a roadblock. Modern epidural anesthesia reduces stress for mom and baby, which is especially helpful if the baby is medically compromised. Epidurals are used not just for pain control, but also as an active tool to manage labor and delivery, and to provide flexible options, safety, and control that is not possible during “natural” childbirth. Unlike the early days of epidural anesthesia, modern epidural methods do not slow labor, have minimal effects on the unborn child, and often help to speed labor and fetal descent.

But in medicine, there is always a down side. Epidurals are wonderful, when they work. Even in the most skilled of hands, epidurals are highly technical, difficult to place and maintain, sometimes marginally effective, and frequently fail. They are best placed after the labor is well established, usually at 3 to 5 cm of cervical dilation. If labor is rapid, there may not be adequate time to place an epidural. Minor complications include a 1% chance of a migraine-like headache that may require treatment, and the rare possibility of nerve damage, seizures, infection, or other life threatening problems. Techniques, drugs, equipment, and monitoring used during an epidural anesthetic are all geared toward preventing complications.

Epidurals are usually an elective choice, but not always. There are labor situations in which epidurals may be mandatory for the safety of both mom and baby. Anesthesia for childbirth is unique because the anesthesiologist must treat two patients at once, each one with very special needs. Epidurals are used by default, because other methods of pain control have unacceptable effects on mom or her unborn child. The delicate balance between pain control and safety during labor and delivery is like a tightrope walk. I wonder if Dr. John Snow realized what he started on that foggy April morning in London.
Secret Thoughts Book Trailer:

H.S. Clark is a mystery writer, physician, anesthesiologist, and the author of Secret Thoughts: a Medical Thriller, set in Seattle. His thrillers are ultimately about the interface of ethics and medicine, and the human struggle for health and wellness. The technology he writes about is 99% cutting edge fact mixed with a 1% glimpse into the future. He showcases the abuses of medicine in order to focus attention on the wonders of medical achievement. Mostly, he wants the reader to enjoy the journey. You can connect with H.S. at his website at:
Secret Thoughts: a Medical Thriller is available for immediate download from Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon http://goo.gl/UWLVR  

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