Epidurals Do Not Prolong Labor

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Many obstetricians resist giving epidural anesthesia during the late stage of delivery because they believe it lengthens the duration of labor. But a clinical trial by Chinese researchers has found that it does not.

The study, in Obstetrics & Gynecology, randomized 400 women in labor to receive either a standard epidural anesthetic or a saline solution in an identical container. Neither the patients nor the health care providers knew who was receiving which.

The average time from full dilation of the cervix to delivery was 51 minutes in the saline group and 52 minutes in the women who got the anesthetic, a difference of no clinical significance.

The number of cesarean sections, the number of forceps deliveries and the number of episiotomies were almost identical in the two groups. Seventeen of the obstetricians in the saline group stopped the infusion to speed labor, compared with 21 in the epidural group, again an insignificant statistical difference.

The only difference between groups was that the women who received the anesthetic expressed greater satisfaction with their pain control.

“Turning off the anesthesia won’t help,” said the senior author, Dr. Philip E. Hess, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard. “If you decide you want an epidural for pain relief, you should not be concerned that it’s going to prevent a vaginal delivery or cause any negative effect on labor.”