July 23, 2024

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What Women Should Know > News > Yale Medicine

2 min read
What Women Should Know > News > Yale Medicine

When it’s time to have a baby, some women head to the hospital with a detailed birth plan that includes a request to avoid epidural anesthesia. Others think an epidural is the only way to get through labor. Regardless of the specifics of their plan, when women arrive at Yale New Haven Health hospitals for delivery, an anesthesiologist is always ready to talk to them about their options.

“If an expectant mother says she’d like a ‘natural’ childbirth—one that doesn’t entail epidural anesthesia—I always try to honor her preferences and provide as much information as possible to help her make an informed decision,” says PJ McGuire, MD, a Yale Medicine obstetric anesthesiologist. “It might be because she wants to experience everything, including feeling what labor pain is like. Or she may have read information online that scared her about epidurals. I will answer her questions and explain any misconceptions.”

Used by an estimated 70-75% of women who give birth, an epidural is the most common—and most effective—type of anesthetic for pain relief during labor.

An epidural is a numbing medicine given by inserting a needle and a catheter (a small, flexible tube) into the lower part of a woman’s back. The needle is removed, but the catheter remains to deliver pain medication as needed throughout labor. The epidural creates a band of numbness from the belly button to the top of the legs, allowing women to stay awake and feel the pressure of labor but without the pain. It’s primarily used during labor, but the anesthetic is also used for certain surgeries and specific causes of chronic back pain.

The most important thing for women to know is that they have options, explains Dr. McGuire, including the right to change their mind and request an epidural. “If a woman chooses an epidural, we do it. Or, if she decides to have a natural childbirth, we’ll do that, too,” she says. “And if she changes her mind later, that’s not a problem at all.”

Below, Dr. McGuire shares answers to common questions women have about epidurals.

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