Epidurals might just do more than relieve the pain of childbirth. According to a new study, they can also decrease the likelihood of postpartum depression.
Following preliminary research by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, epidurals have been found to offer benefits beyond simple pain management during labor in some women.
"Labor pain matters more than just for the birth experience. It may be psychologically harmful for some women and play a significant role in the development of postpartum depression," said Grace Lim, director of obstetric anesthesiology at Pittsburgh's Magee Women's Hospital and lead investigator on the study. "We found that certain women who experience good pain relief from epidural analgesia are less likely to exhibit depressive symptoms in the postpartum period."
Researchers controlled factors already known to increase the risk for postpartum depression, including pre-existing anxiety issues and post-delivery pain caused by vaginal tearing and other forms of trauma, in the 201 women whose medical records they reviewed.
Turns out, even with these factors removed, the study revealed that labor pain was still a significant risk factor for postpartum depression — and the less painful her labor experience was, the less likely she'd exhibit depressive symptoms in the weeks following.
"Although we found an association between women who experience less pain during labor and lower risk for postpartum depression, we do not know if effective pain control with epidural analgesia will assure avoidance of the condition," Lim cautioned.
More research is needed to draw such a conclusion, as a host of other things — hormonal imbalances, psychological adjustment to motherhood, and social support — can also account for a woman developing postpartum depression. And, there are a few other ways besides an epidural to mitigate labor pains.
Bottom line: for most women, there have long been benefits and drawbacks to the decision to get an epidural during labor, but if anyone is pregnant and concerned about postpartum depression, this might help make that choice a bit easier.