Patient Information

Frequently Asked Questions

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General Anesthesia

General anesthesia is a type of anesthesia in which you are totally unconscious, having no awareness or any other sensations. General anesthesia is typically accomplished by using IV medications (sedative hypnotics, narcotics, muscle relaxants) in conjunction with inhaled gases. During your anesthesia you will be monitored at all times by a board-certified anesthesia provider using sophisticated equipment to constantly monitor all bodily functions. Once you are unconscious, a breathing tube may be placed through your mouth to maintain proper breathing and to deliver inhaled anesthetic drugs. The duration and level of anesthesia is continuously and precisely adjusted in response to numerous patient and surgical variables throughout your surgery. Upon conclusion of surgery your anesthesia provider reverses the process and you will regain consciousness while remaining comfortable, warm and safe in the recovery room.

While under anesthesia, you lose your protective reflexes such as coughing. However, it is possible to throw up and aspirate your gastric contents; in other words, whatever was in your stomach can end up in your lungs. If you have eaten or had fluids recently, there will be more acid and particles in your stomach. Aspiration of this could cause extensive damage to your lungs. This “aspiration pneumonia” was one reason many people died under anesthesia many years ago before fasting guidelines were instituted. During emergency surgery, many precautions are taken to limit the risk of aspiration pneumonia in patients with a full stomach. However, it is best to follow the fasting guidelines set by your anesthesiologist for elective surgery. You may be asked to take some or all of your usual medications with a few sips of water before surgery which typically dissolve and pass out of your stomach by the time anesthesia starts. Your anesthesiologist may also recommend that you take certain antacids prior to your anesthetic if you are at risk for aspiration.

The single most important thing we need to know is your medical history. At several points along the way you will be asked (sometimes redundant) questions. These are necessary to ensure your safety. In addition your anesthesia provider will usually do a brief physical exam focused primarily on your heart and lungs. In most cases, laboratory tests are unnecessary.  We work actively with our referring surgeons and hospitals to eliminate unnecessary testing while retaining the blood tests, x-rays, cardiograms, etc., that are still likely to help us avoid complications.

Occasionally a referring surgeon will encounter an unusual set of circumstances that warrants a visit with an anesthesia provider well ahead of the planned surgery to create a comprehensive plan for the anesthetic. These pre-op consultations are arranged within the group practicing at the site involved.

That depends on the operation you are having. Some operations are handled very well with either a major nerve block or a local anesthetic with sedation, rather than general anesthesia which induces a deep sleeplike state. These include procedures on the extremities, on the perineum, on the lower abdomen, superficial procedures like breast biopsies or long-term vascular catheter placements. Some operations that are typically done with a general anesthetic can be done with a regional or local anesthetic if the patient prefers to avoid a general anesthetic and will tolerate some minor discomfort to do so. You should discuss your options with your anesthesia provider before surgery.

Anesthesia “sleep” is a drug-induced state of unconsciousness, and is very different from normal sleep. Under full general anesthesia patients do not dream. However, we don’t always give “full general anesthesia” –many operations are handled best with a nerve block, spinal, epidural or local anesthetic. It is common to give intravenous sedatives with these types of anesthesia. Occasionally patients will report having pleasant dream-like experiences with sedatives.

Every individual responds to anesthetic drugs differently. Infrequently some patients will remember parts of their experience when they were supposed to be asleep. In most instances it is just a fragment of a conversation they heard or sensations of touch or movement in the absence of any pain or anxiety. Most instances of recall occur in people with life-threatening injuries, massive hemorrhage, or medical emergencies requiring life-saving surgery. Such patients cannot tolerate normal amounts of anesthesia, which would depress their already stressed vital functions.   These emergency patients get life saving measures and resuscitation first, and anesthesia second. Studies indicate that about 10%-15% of patients that survive these life threatening episodes will have some degree of recall of the events surrounding their life saving treatment.

You will be cared for by a nationally board certified anesthesia provider. Anesthesiologists and CRNAs (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists) are the only clinicians licensed to provide anesthesia care in the U.S. Our practice is comprised of both CRNAs and anesthesiologists that work in a collaborative team environment to provide care to our patients.

Anesthesiologists are medical doctors that have completed a rigorous post-graduate training program including a clinical residency specific to anesthesia, and have passed a national board certification in anesthesia.

CRNAs are experienced intensive care or trauma nurses that have likewise completed a rigorous post-graduate training program including a clinical residency specific to anesthesia, and have passed a national board certification in anesthesia. CRNAs are board certified independent anesthesia professionals that have been providing safe, expert anesthesia care for over 150 years. CRNAs presently render over 32 million anesthetics in this country annually, and provide over 95% of all anesthesia care in rural hospitals in the US.

Yes, the standard of care in anesthesiology is that a competent anesthetist be in the patient’s presence continuously during the entire anesthetic.

Every patient under our care has a continuous EKG, a blood pressure measurement every few minutes, a pulse oximeter, and a measure of body temperature. A pulse oximeter is a small electronic device that gives a continuous readout of the patient’s oxygen saturation/delivery. Since the biggest single source of untoward outcomes under anesthesia has been inadequate oxygen delivery, the ability to monitor the oxygenation status has seen a major improvement in patient safety. Patients receiving general anesthesia also have continuous monitoring of the percent of oxygen given in the breathing circuit along with measurements of carbon dioxide elimination.

There is a wide array of additional monitoring techniques, including indwelling lines (which measure blood pressures in the arterial tree, venous inflow to the heart, and the pulmonary artery), continuous EEG, nerve stimulators, Doppler blood flow monitors, trans-esophageal echocardiograms as well as many others that may be used in specific instances depending on the operation and the patient’s underlying health status.

There are great variations in the amount of pain a patient will experience based on the type of surgery and individual perception of pain. Some surgical procedures such as lung surgery and bone surgery can be very painful, while other procedures like cataract surgery are almost painless during surgery and the recovery period. Traditional post-operative pain management is usually addressed by moderate doses of intravenous or intramuscular narcotic medications and/or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Once you are eating and drinking adequately and your pain is well controlled intravenous or intramuscular medications can be switched to oral medication (pills) that have been ordered for you to take at home. Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) with codeine, or similar analgesics are frequently used at this stage to provide pain relief. Occasionally, these medications are not adequate, so “breakthrough” pain medication (for example intramuscular morphine) may be given.

A popular method known as “patient-controlled analgesia” (PCA) works very well for most patients. With PCA, you are able to control the amount of pain medication by pushing a button which triggers a dose of narcotic analgesic. After each dose, you are “locked out” from getting any more medication for a prescribed period of time, after which you can initiate another dose. PCA is very safe and effective when administered as intended by the patient. Family members or others should never be permitted to press the button for you.

Continuous epidural analgesia is another method of pain relief that is very effective for more complex in-patient surgical procedures such as lung or abdominal surgery.   Likewise, various types of nerve blocks are becoming more popular as a highly effective form of pain relief, particularly for orthopedic procedures. In some centers, a catheter (thin tube) is left in place to bathe the nerves continually with local anesthetic and provide round-the-clock comfort for surgical patients in the hospital or at home.

Anesthetics affect everyone differently. Below are some of the more common side effects noted by patients recovering from general anesthesia:

1.  Drowsy and tired feelings for hours after surgery

Anesthetics wear off at different rates in different people. Most people are awake enough to answer simple questions within 5-10 minutes after surgery, although many have short term memory loss, so that hours after surgery you may feel as though it took a long time to wake up. Many people also feel tired enough to sleep for long periods of time after surgery even though they can easily be awakened. The pain medications you get after surgery may also prolong these feelings of sleepiness.

2.  Post-operative nausea and vomiting

Historically, approximately 20% of people undergoing general anesthesia experience some degree of post-operative nausea and/or vomiting (PONV). If nausea has been a problem with past anesthetics, let your anesthesia provider know, as there are several interventions that can significantly reduce the incidence of PONV. Even though we can notably reduce the risk of this side effect, a minority of patients suffer from PONV. If you have a history of PONV which resists treatment, you may consider a regional or local anesthetic as an alternative to general anesthesia, depending on your surgical and anesthetic needs.

3.  Headache

This occurs in approximately 10% of patients and is more common in patients prone to headaches and in patients who drink coffee (due to caffeine withdrawal).

4.  Sore throat
While you are asleep you may have a soft plastic device in your throat to make sure your airway is open and air is moving in and out easily. Even when placed very carefully and delicately approximately 30% of patients experience some degree of a sore throat. This usually resolves in a day, but if there has been some difficulty in placing the plastic airway device, sore throat and hoarseness may persist for longer. Permanent damage to your throat or vocal cords is exceptionally rare.

5.  Damage to teeth

This is also usually due to the plastic airway device. Damage to teeth can happen during placement (even if the anesthesia provider is very careful) or on awakening if you bite down very hard on the plastic. Be sure to let your anesthesiologist know if you have loose teeth or delicate dental work.

6.  Awareness during surgery

Many people ask about the possibility of being awake and aware during surgery when they are supposed to be unconscious. This is exceedingly uncommon but may happen under unusual circumstances such as emergency surgery for a patient in shock. In such a scenario the patient’s vital signs may be so weak that they cannot tolerate much anesthesia. Remember that during a local or regional anesthetic you may be awake during all or part of the procedure depending on the amount of sedation given.

7.  Serious complications

There are also a number of very rare but severe complications of general anesthesia such as injury to nerves, organs and possibly death. Some health problems may increase your risk of complications — please thoroughly discuss your health with your anesthesiologist.

Certain surgical procedures are more likely to induce nausea and vomiting than others. For example, operations on the eyes, ear, breasts, and bowel are more likely to cause nausea. Some individuals appear to be more susceptible to this problem, including those who experience motion sickness, and those who have previously had nausea or vomiting after anesthesia. When nausea and vomiting occurs, a variety of medications are available that can alleviate the symptoms.

Our nausea and vomiting rate is well below the national average as result of routine utilization of progressive anti-nausea therapy. If you have had major problems with nausea or vomiting after a previous surgery, please make a point of letting your anesthesia provider know, so that he or she can decide what anesthetic technique to use to minimize this potentiality.

Exact data is difficult to come by for several reasons: 1) death from anesthesia is extremely rare, so gathering data for a denominator is a massive undertaking; 2) most deaths around the time of surgery occur from a combination of causes, of which the anesthetic may be only minor, 3) the nature of the American legal system encourages practitioners to be defensive and secretive. The best available data comes from a study of over 100,000 anesthetics in the early 70′s in Wales. Retrospective analysis there found that roughly one in 10,000 patients died from the anesthesia “alone” and that two in 10,000 died as a result, at least to some degree, of the anesthesia management.

Though it has not been well quantified, most informed sources put the risk today at well less than half of what it was in the 1970’s. Of note, 8.1% of the patients in the Welsh study received anesthetics that have not been used in the US in at least 15 years. Additionally, we get newer, better drugs all the time. Combined with the advent of pulse oximetry, carbon dioxide monitoring, and better training of personnel we believe the risk of dying today is closer to 1 in 50,000.

Anesthesia providers frequently (on a daily basis) care for patients with heart disease, lung disease, kidneys problems, cancer, blood disorders, and many other pathologic conditions. They know how to deal with these problems from an anesthetic standpoint because they have had years of advanced training and experience caring for patients with complex medical problems. Your anesthesia provider will ask you a number of questions about your medical conditions to allow them to formulate a plan to minimize the risk associated with your specific medical history. He or she may even arrange for further tests or consultations with additional medical experts to learn more about your condition.

Most “bad reactions” to anesthesia are not life-threatening. There are two rare but preventable inherited conditions that we will mention here:

“Malignant Hyperthermia” 
(MH) is a very rare but serious hereditary (inherited) problem that is triggered by inhaled anesthetic agents such as Sevoflurane or the IV muscle relaxant Succinylcholine. MH causes severe metabolic disturbances and dangerously high temperatures during or after anesthesia. The exact incidence of MH is unknown. The rate of occurrence has been estimated to be as frequent as one in 5,000 or as rare as one in 65,000 administrations of general anesthesia with triggering agents. The incidence varies depending on the concentration of MH families in a given geographic area. High incidence areas in the United States include Wisconsin, Nebraska, West Virginia and Michigan. If you have a family history of relatives that might have experienced severe fever or other serious metabolic complications during surgery or during recovery from anesthesia you must inform your anesthesia provider.

“Pseudocholinesterase deficiency” 
is a condition in some individuals whereby they are unable to metabolize (break down) the drug Succinylcholine which is often used to relax the muscles during the surgery. As a result of their inability to metabolize this agent, the drug may last much longer than it would ordinarily. This is a rare problem occurring in approximately 1 in 3,000 people.

By providing your anesthesia provider with an accurate anesthesia history and details of what happened to you or your relatives they will be able to decide whether or not specific precautions in your case are necessary.

Your anesthesia providers will want to know about any dental prostheses (false teeth, bridges, implants), tooth or gum disease, or cosmetic dentistry. This information is needed because of the risk of trauma or damage to teeth during the insertion of breathing tubes or other instruments. Obviously the danger is increased if a tooth is actually loose.

If you inform your anesthesia provider about dental prostheses, tooth or gum disease, or cosmetic dentistry, it will help avoid tooth damage. Special anesthesia techniques may be necessary. Sometimes, if a tooth is very loose or fragile, it is wise just to have it removed by a dentist before your surgery.

If you are a smoker, our advice is to quit smoking as soon as you can! Smokers are more likely to experience breathing complications during and after anesthesia. Fortunately, these problems are usually managed without great difficulty. Smokers must also be especially careful to carry out deep breathing exercises after their surgery to prevent chest infection, pneumonia or other lung problems. The use of an incentive spirometer, a device which gauges your lung function, can be very helpful during recovery from surgery.

The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the type of anesthesia you received, the length of your procedure, your underlying medical condition and your body’s reaction to the medications you have received. Most of the medications in use today are very short-acting and allow for rapid emergence, enabling many patients to go home on the same day of their surgery. Your anesthesia provider can give you a reasonable estimate for how long your recovery time will be, but each patient has a unique experience, and it is important to be flexible in your expectations. Also, patients often receive pain medication after their surgery and may experience side effects from the medication which are believed to be from the actual anesthetics.

Strictly from the viewpoint of the anesthetic effects, patients can drink fluids and rapidly progress to full meals as soon as they feel up to it. This may be within an hour after a minor procedure. After major internal alterations, however, especially those involving the brain, the mouth, or the GI tract, the patient may need to wait much longer.  Your surgeon or doctor will give you more detailed instructions about what you may eat or drink after surgery.

Anesthetists have moved away from the old practice of requiring day-surgery patients to drink and retain (i.e., not vomit) fluids prior to discharge. Studies have shown that pushing early fluid intake only promotes post-operative nausea and vomiting.  It is far better to wait until the patient feels thirsty, and this need not delay discharge home.

Many of the medicines used to control pain after surgery are in the family of opioids also known as narcotics. Some examples include Morphine, Hydromorphone (Dilaudid), Fentanyl, Vicodin, Percocet and Darvocet, among many others. While it is possible for patients to become addicted to narcotic pain medicines when used properly and as prescribed, the incidence of addiction is relatively low. Some of the predisposing factors to opioid addiction are certain psychiatric illnesses or having a history or a family history of substance abuse. Many patients withhold taking their pain medicine after surgery, for fear that they will develop an addiction, but when used for the purpose of treating surgical pain, narcotic pain medicine is very useful and effective. If a patient does feel that they are having a problem with addiction to pain medicine, they should seek help from a medical provider immediately.

You will be given a blood transfusion only if your anesthesia provider considers it absolutely necessary to protect your life and health. All blood given is tested for presence of the AIDS virus, Hepatitis B and C viruses and other infections, so the chances of getting these serious infections is extremely low. If your religion forbids receiving blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witness and some others), please let us know so that the risks can be explained, the issues discussed in depth, and your wishes respected.

You may not drive a vehicle for 24 hours after receiving anesthesia. Whether you receive a general anesthetic or sedation for local anesthesia, you will be given medications to allow you to tolerate surgery or unpleasant procedures by relieving anxiety, discomfort, and pain. While current medications allow you to wake up quicker, the total elimination of these medications takes upwards of 24 hours. Thus, your ability to concentrate, make decisions, have normal reflexes, and safely drive will be hindered for up to 24 hours.

Regional Anesthesia

“Regional anesthesia” refers to anesthetizing only a specific region of the body by blocking the nerve impulses that carry sensory information back to the brain, rendering the body part “numb” or painless. The most common types of regional anesthesia are spinals, epidurals and peripheral nerve blocks placed at large nerves associated with a specific body part. Regional anesthesia is often used in lieu of general anesthesia to circumvent the need to render a patient deeply unconscious. However, patients are typically given IV sedative hypnotic medications in conjunction with regional anesthesia so they can sleep lightly during the surgery and thus wake up quickly without pain or the untoward side effects occasionally associated with general anesthesia.

You may remain awake, or you may be given a sedative. You do not see or feel the actual surgery take place. Your anesthesia provider, after reviewing your individual situation, will discuss the appropriate amount of sedation for you. This sedation is sometimes referred to as “twilight sleep” or “conscious sedation” and describes a semi-conscious state that allows patients to be comfortable during certain surgical procedures.

Getting a nerve block is no more painful than getting an IV.  Your anesthetist will numb the skin before placing the nerve block and can also provide you with mild sedation prior to the procedure.

Like any other medical procedure, there are risks associated with regional anesthesia. Complications or side effects can occur, even though the patient is monitored carefully and the anesthesiologist takes special precautions to avoid them. To help prevent a decrease in blood pressure, fluids may be administered intravenously. In rare cases, a headache may develop following the block procedure. By holding as still as possible while the needle is placed, the patient may help to decrease the likelihood of a headache. The area where the nerve block was administered may be sore and tender for a few days. These discomforts, if they do occur, often disappear within a few days. If they do not disappear or become severe, additional treatments are available.

Frequently, patients experience less nausea from regional blocks, and they generally awaken faster.  In addition to providing anesthesia during surgery, regional blocks also can be used to reduce the pain after an operation.  Generally, regional nerve blocks and catheters will provide better pain control than intravenous or oral narcotics.

Nerve injury after a regional block is a rare occurrence, which can occur anywhere from 1 in 4,000 blocks to 1 in 200,000 blocks, depending on the type of block and specific risk factors. It can be related to direct-needle injury of the nerve or to secondary complications like bleeding or infection. To prevent nerve injury, inform the anesthesiologist you experience any sharp or radiating pain during needle placement or injection. If you experience any new symptoms like tingling, numbness or motor dysfunction after a nerve block already has worn off, seek medical attention immediately as this can be a sign of secondary damage by hematoma or infection. Because recovery of nerve function depends on timely diagnosis and treatment, do not take any unexpected changes lightly.

IV Sedation

Some surgical procedures can be accomplished using local anesthesia at the operative site and IV sedative hypnotics for the primary anesthetic. This type of combined local/sedation anesthesia is typically done for less invasive or less complicated surgeries. The role of your anesthesia provider in this scenario is to administer intravenous sedatives, monitor your breathing and vital signs, and to frequently monitor your response to the surgical procedure while assuring your safety. If necessary the anesthesia provider can quickly and seamlessly increase or “deepen” the anesthesia to approximate or attain a level of general anesthetic if necessary. By virtue of the modern medications available today patients can opt for sedation and approximate the same experience of a general anesthetic without the side effects associated with general anesthesia. IV sedation may not be indicated or sufficient for many surgical procedures or specific patient situations. Your anesthesia provider and surgeon will advise you as to the viability of this option relative to your specific case.

When you receive general anesthesia you are completely unaware and deeply unconscious throughout the entire surgical procedure.   Sedation is designed to be a lighter degree of anesthesia, such that patients wake up more quickly and also avoid many of the side effects associated with general anesthesia.   As such, while it is uncommon for patients to remember or to be aware of anything during their surgery, some sedation patients report awareness during surgery.  However, even when patients may have some degree of awareness in the operating room they do not feel pain, they are not anxious, nor are they able see the surgical site because of their supine position and surgical drapes covering the surgical field.   It is also easy for the anesthesia provider to quickly deepen your sedation as necessary to accommodate your comfort.

Each individual responds to, and recovers from anesthesia differently. However, relative to a general anesthesia, recovery from sedation is typically much faster and has substantially fewer side effects.

Nausea and vomiting are exceptionally rare following sedation anesthesia, although they do occur sometimes.   Occasionally if narcotic medication is used for sedation in patients sensitive to this class of drugs they can experience nausea.   However, most of the anesthesia drugs used for sedation do not cause nausea or vomiting, and some actually have anti-nausea properties.

No, you will still need to arrange a ride after your procedure. Sedative medications can impair your ability drive safely for hours after their administration.   From a safety standpoint we ask that you plan in advance to have someone drive you home after your procedure.

Spinal Anesthesia

Spinal anesthesia is very similar to epidural anesthesia–it affects a nerve block largely in the same fashion with the same types of medication as an epidural. However spinal anesthesia is differentiated from an epidural in several noteworthy ways. Unlike epidurals, spinal anesthesia is injected into the sub-arachnoid space where cerebro-spinal fluid is located.  Spinal anesthesia involves a single injection rather than an indwelling catheter which stays in place to allow repeated dosing or a continuous infusion. Thus spinal anesthesia is most often used for surgical procedures of less than 3 hours in duration (including C-sections) and has limited usefulness for laboring women.

Spinal anesthesia is placed in the low back (lumbar region). After a sterile prep and draping, local anesthetic is placed on the skin to numb the area where the spinal needle will be advanced. The needle is passed between the vertebrae of the spinal column through the dural membrane where the cerebro-spinal fluid is located. Once the position of the needle is confirmed a local anesthetic and often a narcotic medication are injected and the needle is removed. The entire process usually takes approximately 5- 10 minutes and is somewhat less complex than the placement of an epidural.

The incidence of ‘post dural puncture headache’ in obstetric patients is currently estimated to be 0.5% to 1.5%.   Just as there have been great advances in anesthetic medicines, much progress has also been made in the delivery of these medications. The risk of side effects has been greatly minimized by refinements in the size and shape of the needles used to administer spinal anesthetics.  Most patients no long need bed rest following the spinal anesthesia, and the chance of post-operative headache and other side effects is equal to or lower than the risks from general anesthesia.

No, some surgeries are not possible under spinal anesthesia. Additionally, some health-related conditions may preclude you from having a regional anesthetic.  These include certain bleeding disorders, infections, spinal cord/neurologic disorders, and cardiac disorders.

Obstetric Anesthesia

Today women have the option of choosing a relatively pain-free labor and delivery by virtue of the advancements in anesthesia techniques over the last three decades. Regional anesthesia in the obstetric settings has become far safer and widely available with approximately 80% of all laboring patients in the United States receiving some form of regional anesthesia for labor and/or C-section.  A minority of women still choose to have a natural birth without medication during labor regardless of the discomfort that labor may represent.  Fortunately, women have the right to make their own decisions surrounding anesthesia during childbirth. We as anesthesia providers must respect each patient’s wish and expertly attend to their individual anesthetic needs when called upon to care for expectant mothers.

After a sterile prep and draping, a local anesthetic is placed in the skin to numb the area where the epidural needle will be placed. The needle for epidural passes between the vertebrae of the spinal column to a tissue layer called the “epidural space.”   Once the needle is correctly positioned, a very small plastic catheter (tube) is threaded though the needle into the epidural space.  The needle is then removed and the catheter remains. The catheter is taped to the patient’s back and local anesthetics or narcotics can be continuously infused via this catheter. Placement of an epidural usually takes 10 – 25 minutes and is relatively painless. The epidural catheter can remain in place providing pain relief until delivery or the patient decides it is no longer needed.

Epidurals are typically placed using local anesthetics to numb the skin and tissue that the epidural needle will pass through. A very small needle (often 25g.) is used to administer this local anesthetic (typically lidocaine) and is comparable to a routine injection from your doctor.  Patients having an epidural for a procedure other than labor and delivery during pregnancy are typically sedated prior to epidural placement. Women receiving epidurals for labor are generally not sedated as the sedatives can reach the baby.

The goal of a labor epidural anesthetic is to significantly reduce the pain while leaving enough sensation to feel pressure and push during delivery. The epidural medication generally begins to work within 5 minutes, but can take up to 15 minutes to achieve its full effect. Sometimes your pain relief may not be complete, or it may be one-sided. In most cases, changing your position, changing the dose of medication, and/or repositioning the catheter in your back resolves this. On occasion, the catheter may need to be replaced. Be sure to talk to your nurse or anesthesiologist if you have concerns about the amount of pain you feel.

There has been much debate and research on this topic. Generally, epidural anesthesia does not dramatically affect the progress of labor and delivery. Sometimes there is a brief slowing of contractions thought to be due to the extra IV fluids given around the time of epidural placement. Occasionally, labor progresses more rapidly after the epidural anesthetic is working and you are more relaxed. One factor important for a good labor pattern is the placement of the epidural only after labor is regular and your cervix is dilating.

Patients are generally sitting or lying on their side for epidural placement. In addition, patients are typically asked to curve their back (often called the “mad cat” position) to help open the spaces between the spine and facilitate epidural needle passage between these bones into the epidural space.

Current data does not support the idea that epidural anesthesia directly increases the need for C-sections in laboring patients.  Statistically, a high percentage of laboring women having C-sections have epidural anesthesia. However, this is due to the fact that women who have more difficult labor (due to multiple factors including the size and position of the baby and intolerable pain) are more likely to ask for epidural anesthesia. This same group of women are more likely to require C-section for delivery because of factors unrelated to the anesthesia.

The most common side effects from epidural and spinal anesthesia are:

1.  Itching — this is not an allergy, but a common side effect of some of the medication.

2.  A decrease in blood pressure due to the medications.  This is usually counteracted with increased IV fluids and occasionally, medication.  For this reason, an IV is placed prior to the epidural.  Both the mother’s and the baby’s vital signs will be monitored to ensure patient safety during the epidural.

3.  Shaking is a side effect which can result from the epidural medication, rapid infusion of relatively cold IV fluid, or labor itself.

1.  Infrequently, once the anesthetic takes effect, the mother’s uterus contracts very hard. This may cause the baby’s heart rate to decline briefly, but does not harm the baby.

2.  Approximately one in every 400 hundred patients receiving spinal or epidural anesthesia gets a spinal headache. Spinal headaches usually start the day after the anesthetic. These headaches can be painful, but are not life threatening and can be treated.

3.  On rare occasions, the epidural medication may go into a blood vessel. A very large dose could cause a loss of consciousness or a seizure.  Small doses are normally used for labor.

4.  Occasionally, the anesthetic can be too strong and the patient will require breathing assistance.  The anesthetist is trained to manage breathing under these circumstances.

5.  Very rarely, back or nerve damage can occur.

6.  While extremely rare, any anesthetic can sometimes have serious consequences.  In the most severe cases, blindness, major organ damage or death may result.

Two types of drugs are commonly used in epidurals:  local anesthetics and opioid pain medicines.  Local anesthetics block nerves to provide “numbness” and opioids (morphine-like medicines) alter pain nerve signal transmission and modify perception of pain.  Pain medicines (opioids) mixed with local anesthetics provide superior results compared to local anesthetics alone.

Most new mothers are normal, healthy patients and can choose to have an epidural. There are some patients who may not be eligible for regional anesthesia because of co-existing medical conditions.  Women who have bleeding disorders should not receive regional anesthesia because the procedure can cause bleeding into the epidural space, which may cause nerve injury. Women with severe infection can also develop nerve injury after regional anesthesia because of the introduction of bacteria into the epidural space.

Complicated back surgeries such as Harrington rods and spinal fusion can present unique challenges for the anesthesiologist and should be discussed in advance whenever possible.  The anesthesiologist may need to request surgical notes or X-rays in advance of your labor.  If you have a concern regarding one of these issues, we will be happy to consult with you on the phone or in person.

A Caesarean Section (or C-section) is a surgical procedure which involves delivering the baby through an incision in the abdominal wall.  Like most other types of surgery, anesthesia is administered prior to the surgery. However, because patients are encouraged to participate in the experience of childbirth, a C-section is usually performed with the patient awake, under a spinal or epidural anesthetic.  Depending on the circumstances, it is usually possible to allow one other support person (such as the father) to join the mother in the operating room during the surgery.   After the baby is delivered, the support person may accompany the newborn to the nursery, or they may choose to remain with the mother for the remainder of the procedure.  Following the operation, the mother will be transported to the recovery room, where she will recover from anesthesia and be re-united with her newborn.