Oddly Reassuring Study on Rising Deaths From Epidural Complications

Epidurals and general anesthesia in child birth
The safety of epidurals

An article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology has reported a slight uptick in deaths related to regional anesthesia during childbirth.

The safety of both general and regional anesthesia has improved drastically over the last few decades, say the researchers. Between 1972 and 2002, the deaths resulting from a complication from either one dropped by 59 percent. And both continue to be very safe for women.

But surprisingly, although complications from general anesthesia have continued to fall consistently, those from regional anesthesia (an epidural) have gone up since the 1990’s.

Here’s what the researchers found (and why it shouldn’t deter you from choosing anesthesia):

The number of women who died from anesthesia-related complications in childbirth between 1991 and 1996 were 2.5 per million, but 3.8 per million between 1997 and 2002.

The scientists said most deaths occurred during C-sections (48 of the 56 deaths in about 10 years), and were because of strong allergic reactions, or breathing and heart problems in response to the medication. They said so much focus has been paid to the safety of general anesthesia — which has historically been more risky but has consistently improved (17 deaths per million from 1991 to 1996 and 6.5 per million between 1997 to 2002) — they said it could be that doctors and researchers have loosened up a bit when it comes to the epidural.

Still, the data is reassuring to me. I had an epidural with my son and I certainly didn’t worry about dying, but I did worry about having an allergic reaction. (Oh, and having a needle in my spine).  Of course zero deaths from anesthesia complications would be ideal — as would be zero deaths in childbirth overall — but the study reminds us just how much progress obstetrics has made over the decades towards safe childbirth.

Image: flickr

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