Thursday 14 November 2019

Legal matters: Epidurals and side effects

Mary Kirwan

I had an epidural during labour 10 months ago and ever since I've had bad lower back pain. The pain is so bad sometimes I can't move and have difficulty lifting my daughter. I even find it hard when changing her nappy.

While many women have no problem with epidurals, back pain and headaches are not uncommon complaints following the injection. It has been reported that up to 20pc of women will experience postpartum backache after an epidural.

Actress Helena Bonham Carter waxed lyrical recently about the pain killer, claiming it made labour so enjoyable that she'd happily give birth to a baby "every day".

"The epidural . . . I worship at the altar of the person who invented the drug, because you go from a life-transforming pain to just this blissed-out state," said 'The King's Speech' actress.

But for other mums the epidural is not such a pleasurable experience. Some say that the after-effects of epidurals such as back pain are not often discussed, and many suffer in silence.

A leaflet on epidurals published by the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland outlines some of the side-effects and complications of the steroid injection. These include: inability to pass urine; low blood pressure; itching; vomiting; backache and headaches. The leaflet says these side-effects are common, often minor and are usually easy to treat. It goes on to say serious complications are rare. Some of the more uncommon complications are slow breathing, fits, nerve damage, blood clots and cardiac arrest.

Many women report experiencing some temporary mild discomfort after an epidural but for others like you the pain doesn't go away and in some cases gets worse.

The first thing you will need to do is to get to the bottom of what is causing your pain. All of the facts of your case must be reviewed and investigated further by a medical expert.

In order for any medical negligence case to be successful the cause of the problem must be established. While you feel your back problems are as a result of the epidural it can be difficult to establish that it was the direct cause of your pain.

An expert medical opinion must clearly state that the person who administered the injection did so negligently and that the negligence caused your condition.

Epidural headaches and back pain can be caused by an anaesthetist who doesn't observe a spinal fluid leak and take proper action in time.

Another issue to be mindful of is the fact that, just because something went wrong, it does not necessarily mean someone was negligent.

They may have carried out their job competently in the circumstances but problems arose anyhow. The important issue is to look into it and see what you can do to help alleviate the pain.

A tragic case in the UK saw a young mother die after an epidural was administered negligently. Mayra Cabrera (30) suffered a heart attack as a result of an epidural anaesthetic being mistakenly attached to her drip. She died two hours after the birth of her son, in the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

Her husband was told she had died of a clot and only learned the truth a year later.

An inquest found the storage of drugs at the hospital was chaotic. The hospital was ordered to pay £100,000 in fines following a prosecution brought by the UK Health and Safety Executive.

Mary Kirwan is a practising barrister and can be contacted at

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