While Epidurals are Commonly Used for Pain Relief in the Childbirth Process, They can Also Lead to Serious Injuries if Errors Occur.
All pregnant women anticipate the labor pains of delivering a baby. Whether she faces her first or fifth delivery, each woman tolerates pain differently and every labor and delivery is different, some longer and more physically taxing than others. A woman may tear or struggle with sleep loss. As a result, many women opt for pain relief for labor contractions, especially during lengthy labors.
The Prevalence of Epidurals in Labor and Delivery
Approximately 60 to 70% of pregnant women receive epidurals each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 68.1% of first-time mothers get epidurals for vaginal and cesarean births, but only 57.3% get them for subsequent deliveries.
Understanding How Epidurals Work
An epidural is a regional anesthesia injected into a patient’s back to alleviate labor pain before childbirth. The healthcare worker inserts a catheter into the lower back called the lumbar spine to administer pain-relieving medication to body parts below the waist. The anesthesia works by blocking nerve signals at the injection site. While the pain reliever numbs areas of the body, it does not entirely deaden all feeling. Otherwise, a patient could not push during the second labor phase.
The procedure to insert an epidural is straightforward. After explaining the process, warning of potential complications, and obtaining the patient’s consent, the medical professional administers the epidural while the patient sits or lies down. An arched spine is optimal, and the patient must keep still. As such, the epidural occurs between contractions.
Before the injection, the patient receives fluid intravenously, and the practitioner disinfects and numbs the injection site. After the injection, 15 minutes or so, the pain relief medication takes effect. Epidurals are usual during the first stages of labor once contractions are regular. After delivery, the doctor removes the catheter and monitors the patient for infection.
Advantages and Disadvantages of an Epidural
Relieving a laboring woman from painful contractions, pressure, and stretching for hours is a huge benefit. It can also allow a woman to mentally and physically prepare for the strenuous second phase, pushing. Sometimes, labor begins before bedtime and continues for ten or more hours into the next day, depriving a woman of sleep and mental focus. An epidural can facilitate rest and energy to bear the labor and delivery labors ahead.
Other benefits include a possible reduced risk of postpartum depression and an increased ability for the mother to participate in the delivery without the accompanying agony. Instead of knocking a woman out with anesthesia, the epidural allows a woman to remain awake and prepared for the potential emergency c-section. When a fetus is distressed, an emergency c-section may be necessary to save the baby. In that case, time is of the essence, so having a numbed lower body and catheter in place for pain medications saves crucial time for a baby suffering oxygen deprivation or other distress.
On the other hand, an epidural is not without its disadvantages. The procedure is optimal when the cervix dilates to a minimum of 4 centimeters to avoid slowing down labor. Once the cervix dilates completely, an epidural is impossible. And then there are the risks of potential complications and side effects of the procedure for mothers and babies, particularly when medical errors occur.
Possible Complications for Mothers Receiving Epidurals
Spinal cord damage, infection, and epidural abscesses are a few of the dangers of the procedure. When it comes to epidurals, some of the risks associated with a long needle inserted into the spine, besides pain, are infection, headache, lowered blood pressure, and urinary tract infection. Although uncommon, an unsterilized needle can cause a severe spine infection or an abscess.
Moreover, some patients complain of headaches at the needle’s insertion, and the anesthetic may cause low blood pressure, slowed labor progress, and numbness in the urinary tract. Hence, it masks the urge to urinate. Infrequent urination can cause infection.
For the mother, prolonged labor risks infection, postpartum bleeding, and cesarean delivery. Slowed labor may require intervention with medications that kick start labor, increasing contractions, which can be painful and stressful for the fetus.
Can an Epidural Cause a Birth Injury for the Baby?
Some women cannot bear down to push the baby out when their lower body is numb. This may prolong labor and cause stress on the fetus. In turn, a cesarean or instrument-assisted birth may be necessary. Additionally, emergency deliveries and the necessity for use of birth instruments increase the risk of birth injuries.
For example, a long labor can cause the fetus infection, heart rate drops, and stress. They may experience intermittent oxygen deprivation during contractions. Also, birth instruments can damage nerve endings, causing serious harm such as brachial plexus injuries. The use of forceps or vacuum extractors may also cause fractures, cuts, and bruises.
For the infant, prolonged labor when the mother cannot feel her lower extremities enough to push the baby out can lead to brain damage from oxygen deprivation or nerve damage leading to hand, neck, or shoulder paralysis from birth instruments to pry the baby out of the birth canal. A newborn can suffer bruising, swelling, spinal cord damage, nerve injuries, and developmental delays. The child may even die when their heart rate drops dangerously low due to the mother’s low blood pressure.
Though the correlation between epidurals and birth injuries is not statistically proven, the mishandling of epidurals does increase the likelihood of maternal and birth injuries.
Types of Medical Negligence when Using Epidurals During Labor and Delivery
An anesthesiologist administering an epidural must be highly observant of standard protocols and practices in their industry. Administering too much medication can lead to prolonged labor and a lethal drop in the mother’s blood pressure, especially when the patient is unmonitored. In addition, an anesthesiologist who fails to review a patient’s record may not know the patient has allergies to certain medications or components in drugs, which can be fatal. Other potential errors involving epidurals can occur when the doctor improperly inserts the needle into the patient’s spine, or injects the medication into the incorrect region. Prematurely administering an epidural can also lead to delayed and prolonged labor and related complications, while administering one to a patient who is not a good candidate or whose medical profile does not indicate it may also be considered medical negligence. Lastly, epidurals do not end once given, as the mother and the child must be diligently monitored for any changes or trouble signs. OB-GYN’s and other medical providers must be acutely aware of possible fetal distress or signs of complications on the part of the mother or her baby.
Rights of Victims with Epidural Injuries in New Jersey
In New Jersey, victims of medical negligence may file lawsuits to recover compensation for their damages and losses from the negligent medical professionals who cause their injuries. Medical professionals owe their patients a duty to practice medicine like others with equivalent experience, training, and education would handle a medical situation or procedure. This applies to both mothers and children who suffer harm due to errors and negligent medical care before, during, and after the labor and delivery process. Therefore, mothers who experience traumatic injuries, complications, and long-term damage due to epidural errors may have grounds for medical malpractice claims in New Jersey. Furthermore, a child born with lifelong brain or nerve damage due to epidural anesthesiology errors may have a birth injury claim.
Entrust our New Jersey Epidural Injury Lawyers with Your Claim
If you or your baby experienced injuries due to any improperly administered epidural, or another error while using epidural for pain relief during childbirth, count on our exceptional team of New Jersey birth injury and medical malpractice lawyers at Fronzuto Law Group to investigate your case and pursue justice on your behalf. Our attorneys have years of experience collecting evidence and conducting discovery, working with accomplished medical experts, reviewing medical records, and assembling all of the evidence to help your case. Filing an epidural injury claim is complex and time-consuming, but this is the primary focus of our legal practice, so we take the burden off of you and your family while fighting for maximal compensation. Contact our office for help and a free case review at 973-435-4551 today.