New study: Epidurals could lower the risk of postnatal depression

Woman in labour assisted by doctors

A new study has linked epidural anaesthesia during labour with a decreased risk of postnatal depression in mothers.

The preliminary study by Dr Grace Lim, the Director of Anesthesiology at Magee Women’s Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that “certain women who experience good pain relief from epidural analgesia are less likely to exhibit depressive symptoms in the postpartum period.”

About 30 per cent of women giving birth in Australia choose to have an epidural, according to the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists.

The study by Dr Lim and her team focused on the impact of the intensity and longevity of labour pain, and its subsequent impact on the mental health of mothers, particularly in signs of postnatal depression.

How the study worked

Dr Lim reviewed the medical records of 201 women who received epidurals during birth and had their pain assessed on a scale of 1 to 10 during labour, before and after receiving the epidural. Those mothers were followed up six weeks post-birth with another questionnaire. Depression risk was assessed using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS).

The researchers found an interesting correlation, that the larger the improvement in pain management after receiving the anaesthesia, the lower the ranking on the EPDS.

Epidurals aren’t a blanket safeguard against postnatal depression

These findings don’t ensure that all women who opt for an epidural will avoid postnatal depression.

“Although we found an association between women who experience reduced pain during labour and lower risk for postpartum depression, we do not know if effective pain control with epidural analgesia will assure avoidance of the condition,” said Dr. Lim.

Obviously, there are a range of contributing factors that put women at risk of getting postnatal depression, and these should be considered in light of the study’s findings.

“Postpartum depression can develop from a number of things including hormonal changes, psychological adjustment to motherhood, social support, and a history of psychiatric disorders,” said Dr. Lim.

It’s also worth noting that labour pain may be worse for some women than others. This research is only the beginning of finding ways to identify women who will have painful labours (due to factors like physiology, the baby’s position in utero and genetic predispositions) and would benefit greatly from receiving interventions such as epidurals to reduce pain and potentially prevent postnatal depression afterwards.

This study is still in the early stages and has yet to be published in a scientific journal.

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