Epidural-Related Deaths in Childbirth on the Rise, but Still Rare

Filed under: Delivery, Research Reveals

A new thing for pregnant women to worry about: complications from epidurals. Credit: Getty

Whatever happened to spending nine months in a state of bliss, anticipating your baby's arrival?

These days, it seems every hour a new stress bomb explodes in the world of expectant moms preparing to give birth. The latest complication to worry about? A new study finds childbirth deaths from spinal anesthesia are rising, Reuters reports.

Though deaths related to general anesthesia fell, the number of U.S. women who died from complications from epidurals and spinal blocks during childbirth has risen since the mid-1990s, the study finds.

Dr. Joy L. Hawkins, principal investigator for the study, stresses that such deaths remain rare, but says there is a need for researchers to continue to explore ways that anesthesia can be made safer for women, according to Reuters.

"It is concerning," Hawkins, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, tells the news service.

The results, published in the January 2011 issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology, feature a research study, which examines anesthesia-related deaths for the past 12 years, and compares them with anesthesia-related deaths for the 12 years prior to that.

In the new study, researchers found that between 1979 and 2002, childbirth deaths related to any anesthesia complication dropped by 59 percent among U.S. women, Reuters reports.

There were three such deaths for every million live births between 1979 and 1990, compared with just more than one death per million births between 1991 and 2002 -- the most recent years for which data was available.

But, while deaths related to general anesthesia kept falling in the 1990s, those related to regional anesthesia rose slightly, from 2.5 deaths for every million cesarean sections between 1991 and 1996 to 3.8 per million between 1997 and 2002, according to Reuters.

Researchers say they believe deaths related to general anesthetics declined due to improvements in monitoring of patients receiving anesthesia, safer anesthetics and improved understanding of how the body responds to anesthesia, the news service says.

But although regional anesthesia is considered quite safe, in rare cases patients can have a severe allergic reaction to the anesthetic, or the drug can cause breathing or heart problems, Hawkins tells Reuters.

She stresses that women should remember that anesthesia-related deaths during childbirth are a rare event, but women should make sure they take every precaution to treat chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which make them more vulnerable to childbirth complications.

"I think the main thing is to get good prenatal care, and keep any medical conditions you have under control during pregnancy," Hawkins tells Reuters.

Hawkins also suggests women make sure their anesthesiologist knows about any health conditions they have or medications they have been taking.

Regional anesthesia numbs the lower portion of the body and allows women to stay awake during childbirth. Most cesarean sections are done under regional anesthesia, but emergency c-sections often require general anesthesia, Reuter's reports.

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