An epidural is a local (regional) anesthetic delivered through a small tube into a vacant space outside the spinal cord, the epidural space.
The anesthetic agents that are infused through the small catheter block spinal nerve roots in the epidural space and the sympathetic nerve fibers adjacent to them. Epidural anesthesia can block most of the pain of labor and birth for vaginal and surgical deliveries. Epidural analgesia is also used after cesarean sections to help control post-operative pain.
The primary problem associated with receiving epidural anesthesia is low blood pressure, otherwise known as hypotension, because of the blocking of sympathetic fibers in the epidural space. The decreased peripheral resistance that results in the circulatory system causes dilation of peripheral blood vessels. Fluid collects in the peripheral vasculature (vessels), simulating a condition that the body interprets as low fluid volume. A simple measure that prevents most hypotension is the
It is important not to place a woman flat on her back after receiving an epidural because the supine position can bring on hypotension. If a woman's blood pressure does drop, then the proper treatment is to turn her on her side, administer oxygen, increase the flow of intravenous fluids and possibly administer a medication such as ephedrine if the hypotension is severe. Very rarely, convulsions can result from severe reactions. Seizure activity would be treated with short-acting barbiturates or diazepam (Valium).
Epidural anesthesia, because it virtually blocks all pain of labor and birth, is particularly helpful to women with such underlying medical problems as pregnancyinduced hypertension, heart disease, and pulmonary disease. Epidural anesthesia for labor is usually initiated at the woman's request, providing the labor is progressing well, or if the mother feels severe pain during early labor.
To prepare for the administration of epidural anesthesia, the woman should have the procedure explained fully and sign consent forms if required. An intravenous line is inserted if not already in place. She is positioned on her side or in a sitting position and connected to a blood pressure monitoring device. The nurse/assistant has the following equipment available: oxygen, epidural insertion equipment, fetal monitor, and additional intravenous fluid.
The health care provider cleans the area with an antiseptic solution, injects a local anesthetic to create a small wheal at the L 3-4 area (between the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae) and inserts a needle into the epidural space. Once it is ascertained that the needle is in the correct place, a polyethylene catheter is threaded through the needle. The needle is removed and a test dose of the anesthetic agent is administered. The catheter is taped in place along the patient's back with the end over her shoulder for easy retrieval when further doses are required.
If the patient responds well to the test dose a complete dose is administered. Pain relief should be to the
level of the umbilicus. The epidural anesthesia lasts approximately 40 minutes to two hours, or longer as required. If necessary, additional doses of anesthetic, or top-up, are injected through the catheter or a continuous infusion on a special pump.
Epidural anesthesia can be given in labor in a "segmented" manner. In this instance, the laboring woman receives a small dose of anesthesia so that the perineal muscles do not fully relax. The baby's head is more apt to undergo internal rotation when the perineal muscles are not lax thus facilitating delivery. At the time of delivery, an additional dose can be administered for perineal relief.
Women who have cesarean deliveries may have additional medication injected into the epidural to control intra-operative pain. Medications used generally are narcotics such as fentanyl or morphine (Duramorph). Side effects include severe itching, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment of these side effects with the appropriate medication
Analgesia—A medication that decreases the awareness of pain.
Anesthesia—Loss of sensation through the administration of substances that block the transmission of nerve impulses signaling the feeling of pain and pressure.
Regional anesthesia—Blocking of specific nerve pathways through the injection of an anesthetic agent into a specific area of the body.
It is important to carefully monitor vital signs after the administration of epidural anesthesia. Hypotension can result in fetal death and can also have grave consequences for the mother. The nurse should monitor the patient constantly and use a continuous blood pressure machine to obtain regular blood pressure readings for 20-30 minutes after each administration of anesthesia. The systolic blood pressure should not fall below 100 mm Hg or be 20 mm Hg less than a baseline systolic blood pressure for a hypertensive patient.
It is important to remind the woman to empty her bladder at least every two hours. With epidural anesthesia there is loss of sensation of the need to void. Sometimes, if the bladder fills excessively it could actually block the descent of the baby's head. A catheter can be inserted into the bladder to drain the urine. The nurse needs to closely monitor intake and output and assess the bladder for signs of distension.
Side effects and complications are rare but sometimes the patient will experience a "spinal headache" due to leakage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
When a woman receives epidural anesthesia for labor pains, at times the labor can be prolonged because of excessive relaxation of the muscles. Also, the baby's head may not rotate—especially if it is in the occiput-posterior position (the back of the head is facing toward the woman's back). The woman may not have the sensation that results in the desire to push during contractions when she is fully dilated. These complications may result in an increased incidence of births with the use of vacuum extraction, forceps, or even cesarean deliveries. Administering a Pitocin (oxytocin) drip intravenously can counter this problem. Pitocin is a medication that causes the uterus to contract. Allowing the epidural to wear off in the second stage of labor, when the woman is pushing, may avoid this problem, but the return of the labor pains may be overwhelming to the woman.
Occasionally, slow absorption of the medication from the epidural space into the circulation can result in toxic reactions evident by decreased level of consciousness, slurred speech, loss of coordination, drowsiness, nervousness, and anxiety. The health care provider should look out for these signs, and also report any elevation in temperature, before a top-up dose is administered.
Epidural anesthesia is a safe and effective method of giving pain relief to women during labor and delivery and also can be used for cesarean births. It is believed that very little of the anesthetic is absorbed throughout the body (systemically), therefore epidural anesthesia is ideal because it does not pass medication on to the baby.
Health care team roles
Undergoing the insertion of an epidural can be a frightening experience for the patient because of the injection technique. It is important to offer ample encouragement and support during the entire process.
Pillitteri, Adele. Maternal & Child Health Nursing. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1999.
American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA). 222 S. Prospect Avenue, Park Ridge, IL 60068. (847) 692-7050. <http://www.aana.com>.
Anesthesia Options for Labor and Delivery: What Every Expectant Mother Should Know. AANA, 2001. <http://www.aana.com/patients/options.asp>.
Nadine M. Jacobson, RN