Epidural Analgesia—a delicate dance between its positive role and unwanted side effects (Part Three)
[Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of three posts by Dr. Michael Klein regarding the research behind risks, benefits and realities of epidural analgesia. To read Dr. Klein's first two posts, go here and here.]
Not all women are alike in labour and delivery:
Because the experience of labour pain, including severity, tolerance and contraction patterns, differs greatly among women, so does their ability to cope with the labour process. In consequence, some women feel the need to receive epidural analgesia prior to the onset of active labour. In some cases, the use of an early epidural will relax a woman enough to help her labour progress to the active phase and thereby lead to less subsequent medical interventions. However, if used early without specific indications, a woman may find herself exposed to a larger range of interventions, including a caesarean birth.
Dealing with the reality of the labour ward:
Given this paradox and the severity of some of the side-effects of epidural analgesia, it is time to be honest about the full effects of this excellent technology: there is no such thing as a side-effect. There are only effects, some of which we like and some of which we don’t. When epidurals are used specifically to problem-solve, the risks of complications and other interventions are in fact reduced. When used routinely and mindlessly, epidural analgesia increases problems and adverse outcomes. Women need to be fully informed of this before agreeing to an epidural. Today, women are usually only informed of the direct consequences of epidural analgesia, such as a headache or even very rare neurological complications, but they are not often informed of the consequences that can occur if epidurals are given routinely or too early. They are rarely told about the potential deleterious effects of an epidural on the woman’s labour, nor the cascade of other interventions that might ensue. They are unlikely to be informed that an epidural will increase the demand on their nurse to pay greater attention to the technology and in consequence provide less hands-on support for the labouring woman. They are unlikely to be made aware of an epidural’s purported interference with the initial success of implementing breastfeeding following the baby’s birth.
Epidural analgesia is clearly an effective form of pain relief but it can also have less desirable consequences. Women need to be accurately and completely informed of their choices for pain relief in labour before they can provide their true consent. No matter how well intended, epidural analgesia increases the likelihood that women will have a variety of other interventions, especially if the epidural is given without specific medical indication. Women need to know that when epidural analgesia is given before the active phase of labour, it more than doubles the probability of a cesarean section.
The importance of timing and setting:
Women also need to be reassured that when epidural analgesia is given in the active phase of labour, it does not increase the cesarean section rate. This may motivate women to use other pain relief modalities and methods to help them, if possible, get to the active phase before requesting an epidural.
Readers of the literature also need to remember the importance of setting when reading about the research on epidural analgesia and any other interventions. All the statistics and outcomes that have been discussed here are in fact specific to the setting or environment from which the individual study or meta-analysis emanate. It is important to remember that adverse effects of epidural analgesia can be mitigated, especially if the setting generally limits the use of interventions. It appears, for example that in settings with low cesarean section rates (below 10%), even early epidurals do not increase the cesarean section rate,(21) but in more typical settings where cesarean section rates are higher than 20%, it does. This illustrates a general principle: For all studies, randomized or not, the reader needs to ask the question: do the caregivers in the studies practice the way that I do? If they do, the study may apply but if not, they may not.
The bottom line is that epidural analgesia has completely transformed birth. This massive change in the way that many women receive care in labour and birth has been based on a technique that, when used selectively and as a back-up tool or second line approach, is an important and valuable technique, among the many ways of assisting women with labour and birth. However, when used routinely as a first line agent, epidural analgesia can create problems that could have been avoided. Our Canadian National Study of the Attitudes and Beliefs of Maternity Care Providers has illuminated the very different ways that different disciplines view birth. (22) Most Canadian younger obstetricians (23)and women approaching their first birth (24) do not even know that epidural analgesia interferes with labour. The older generation of obstetricians knows that it does. They have experienced the changes related to epidural analgesia availability and usage during their many years in practice before and after the common use of epidural analgesia. It is time we told the truth about epidural analgesia – to colleagues and women – and engaged in a truly informed decision-making discussion with women about the optimal use of epidural analgesia.
References for this entire series of posts can be found here: References _ michael klein post
Post by: Michael C. Klein, MD, CCFP, FAAP(Neonatal-Perinatal),FCFP, ABFP
Emeritus Professor of Family Practice and Pediatrics
University of British Columbia
Senior Scientist Emeritus
Centre Developmental Neuroscience and Child Health
Child and Family Research Institute
4500 Oak Street
Vancouver, V6H 3N1
Tel: 604-875-2000 ext 5078