Epidural Gone Wrong: When Pain Relief Takes a Painful Turn

Epidurals offer the promise of a less painful, more manageable labor experience. But an epidural gone wrong can have the opposite outcome. How is an epidural supposed to work? What happens when it doesn’t work, or a doctor administers it the wrong way? Stay with us for the answers to those questions and more.

The pain of an epidural gone wrong.

What is an Epidural?

An epidural is a medical procedure that provides pain relief during labor and childbirth. It’s also useful for certain types of surgery, and medical conditions that involve severe or chronic pain.

Here’s how an epidural works:

  • The anesthesiologist injects medication into the epidural space, a region surrounding the spinal cord.
  • The lower half of the body, including the abdominal and pelvic areas goes numb. 
  • The patient will feel less pain or no pain in the lower half of their body.  They can remain alert and awake during childbirth without experiencing intense pain. 

What is the Correct Way to Apply an Epidural?

There’s actually a lot more to an epidural than a simple injection. Anesthesiologists have to be extremely cautious and careful with their placement of the needle and catheter. They are working close to the spinal cord, after all. It’s a delicate area, and a crucial part of the central nervous system. 

The last thing your doctor wants is an “epidural gone wrong”, so they’re trained to do the following:

  • Prepare the Patient. The anesthesiologist should sterilize the patient’s back and numb the skin with local anesthetic.
  • Insert the Epidural Catheter/Needle. With the guidance of a fluoroscope, the anesthesiologist inserts a thin, flexible catheter into the epidural space in the lower back. It should usually be placed between two vertebrae in the lumbar region of the spine.
  • Administer Medication. The practitioner should make sure the catheter is in the right place. Then they should administer a test dose and wait to see how the patient responds before injecting the full dose. 
  • Monitor Constantly. Doctors should monitor the patient’s vital signs and make adjustments to the medication to maintain the desired level of pain relief.
Anesthesiologist inserts epidural.

What Can Go Wrong with an Epidural?

Epidurals are safe in general. But like any medical procedure, they have potential risks and side effects, such as:

  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Back discomfort
  • Not providing any pain relief 
  • Temporary weakness in the legs

But things can get much worse than mild side effects that go away quickly. In the rare case of an epidural gone wrong, patients have ended up with long-term health problems. A few have even lost their lives. 

Take the case of Sha-Asia Semple for example. She was a 26-year-old woman who passed away because her anesthesiologist inserted the catheter too far into her back. The medication ended up in her cerebrospinal fluid. From there, it reached her central nervous system, stopping her breathing. The anesthesiologist then decided to put her on a ventilator. But then he made a second baffling mistake. He put the breathing tube down her esophagus instead of her trachea. 

Doctors were able to save the baby via C-section. But Ms. Semple sadly lost her life. Her incompetent anesthesiologist’s medical license was later revoked. 

Luckily, that was a very rare case of an epidural gone wrong resulting in death.  Other epidural injuries (that may result from negligence) include:

  • Nerve damage
  • Infection 
  •  A drop in blood pressure that can decrease blood flow to the placenta, affecting the baby
  • Allergic reactions
  • Respiratory distress in the baby
  • Prolonged labor
  • Dural puncture, which results in a severe headache or even death
  • Infarction of the spinal cord
  • Partial or complete paralysis
Young mother experiences lasting pain from epidural.

My Doctor Botched My Epidural. Can I Sue?

Some side effects of an epidural are normal and have nothing to do with negligence. Other times, adverse effects are the doctor’s fault. How do you know that your doctor administered your epidural incorrectly? Signs of an epidural gone wrong can include:

  • Swelling and/or pus around the injection site. This could mean you have an epidural abscess. This is an infection near the spinal cord and nerves. If left untreated, it can cause permanent nerve damage. 
  • Numbness/Tingling that won’t go away. Do you have a numb/tingling sensation in your feet and legs? This could happen because the epidural damaged some nerves. 

Remember, just because you have adverse symptoms from an epidural doesn’t mean a doctor did something wrong. An investigation is needed to uncover where your injuries came from. You may be able to sue for negligence, but only if the following is true:

  • You have a severe or lasting injury from an epidural gone wrong. 
  • It’s clear that your medical provider’s negligent actions caused your injury. 
  • The statute of limitations hasn’t passed. This is the time limit that you have for filing a lawsuit after an injury occurs. It varies by state, and is usually 2-3 years. 

We won’t sugar coat it. Recovering damages via a medical malpractice lawsuit isn’t easy. But it will help you get the medical care you need after an epidural gone wrong. Contact us here to find out if you have a case.