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5 Myths About Epidurals That Aren't True

By Kimberley Fernandez - CLD, CCCE

Kimberley has been working with pregnant and new families in their birth and postpartum journey since 2006, and currently teaches virtually for a major Toronto hospital as well as offering virtual classes through her teaching portal "The Birthing Room"


(Updated May 2023)

When I teach prenatal classes, before I even get to the section on medical pain management, the questions about epidurals begin. Great questions, curious questions, and I love answering questions. But I often have to rein myself in or the entire class could be derailed. Often, amongst these questions, there are a sprinkling of myths that persist and continue to be repeated. The following is the five most common myths that I hear people ask about.

Can I Get A Walking Epidural?

Many years ago we began hearing about "walking epidurals". Which was epidural pain management but you could still walk around and move. Previously epidurals meant you were basically paralyzed from the waist down. When I had my first epidural with my son, I couldn't even feel my feet or wiggle my toes. Pushing was impossible because I could feel nothing.

Then we began hearing about walking epidurals. Technically, the way epidurals are done now, is a walking epidural but you will not be permitted to walk. You will still be able to move your legs and shift around in bed and with support, even get to the bathroom, however you will have weakness in your legs and risk of falling is increased significantly. Therefore you will not be permitted to get out of bed. But these less intense epidurals make pushing easier as you should be able to feel the pressure to push. But no walking around.

The Needle Stays In Your Back

Many believe that the needle of the epidural will stay in your back and make it impossible to move around or it will fall out or cause nerve damage. Heck, I even thought this when I had my epidurals. However, the way the medication is delivered is not through the needle. When the needle goes in, a piece of it is removed to make it a hollow tube. A thin, flexible catheter or tube is inserted into the hollow needle and then the needle part is removed leaving the catheter in place. That catheter is then hooked up to a pump and the medication is delivered to the epidural space in the spine continuously until after baby is born. The catheter is taped very securely to your back so you will be able to move and shift around without disturbing it.

After the birth and everything is completed, the catheter will be removed from your back. You may have a small bruise and tenderness there for a couple of weeks.

The Epidural Can Cause Long Term Back Pain

This is a very long held belief, however, it is believed that any long term back pain isn't the result of the epidural itself. But the result of being in a bad position for pushing that has injured your back, and you couldn't feel it happening because of the epidural. Care providers need to make sure that your pushing position is not only helpful for baby being delivered but that it is also ergonomically safe for your back and pelvis to prevent injury.

Making shifts and adjustments throughout pushing can help keep you in a good position to prevent injury and long term back issues. You may feel tender in the spot on your back where the epidural was inserted and there could be some bruising as well, but this will be temporary.

I Can't Have An Epidural If I have A Back Tattoo

Happily, this is definitely a myth. Most back tattoos will be old enough to not cause any issues. Many tend to be lower or higher than the space where the epidural goes in, and it isn't recommended you get a new tattoo while you are pregnant. So any older ones that you have will not be an issue during your labour. If you still have concerns, check with your doctor or get a consult from the anesthesia department for further clarification.

The Epidural Will Affect My Baby

Happily this one isn't true either. The epidural space in your spine is a closed system and the epidural medication will not enter your blood stream. However, often times when an epidural comes into play, particularly before active labour has begun, it can slow your labour down which will result in you receiving Pitocin, a synthetic hormone that will cause your uterus to contract more regularly and more strongly. With the epidural you will not feel these stronger contractions, but your baby will. And while most babies are hardy enough to manage them, it can make them more tired and sleepy after birth. So not sleepy because of the epidural, but because of the Pitocin that can come with an epidural.

This effect can be managed by utilizing non-medical comfort measures and your support people, including a doula, until you are in an active labour pattern, which will less likely to be slowed by getting an epidural. Try to hold out until you are in active labour, say 5-6cms dilated with contractions that are progressively opening your cervix.

Getting an epidural is most definitely a personal decision. Only you can decide what you can and can't manage. Going into your labour with all the benefits and risks of everything being offered will allow you to make the best decision for you and your baby. Try to take a prenatal class that will offer you information and not just tell you what will happen and how to be a good compliant patient. Ask your care providers questions and get actual facts and information, not "don't worry about that" answers. Consider hiring a doula, even a virtual doula can prepare you and your support people for what to expect and offer you evidenced based information to help you make good decisions you won't regret.

I wish you all the best on your pregnancy and your birth. And don't forget to check out my Freebie Library for printables on What To Pack For Your Hospital Birth, What To Eat In Labour, Postpartum Essentials, and a recipe for Frozen Perineal Pads.

P.S. Before You Go

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