How the Epidural Will Become Safer and Painless​

Photo: Veer / The Bump Photo: Veer / The Bump

While there are plenty of moms who go without, most ladies are still big fans of the epidural. Epidural medication is injected into your lower back via a tiny catheter, and works by blocking the transmission of pain from nerves in your lower body to your brain. As good as that sounds, there are still some hiccups with the whole process. Anesthesiologists insert an 18-gauge needle into the pregnant woman’s spine, but it’s unclear exactly what the needle is hitting. That means multiple insertions are sometimes necessary if they don’t get it right, and nearby blood vessels are sometimes damaged. In other words, the pain reducer may actually cause some pain.

What if it were possible for doctors to know exactly where they needed to inject the needle? Bioengineers from the University of Maryland are making it happen by incorporating a new imaging technology called “optical coherence tomography,” or OCT. Kind of like slapping a camera on the needle, the engineers created a handheld OCT device that lets anesthesiologists see tissue from the perspective of the tip of the epidural needle. But they’re not seeing an image, per se, of your back and spine; OCT uses scattered reflections of light waves to produce high-resolution images of biological tissues. It’s like an ultrasound, but with a higher resolution.

“An OCT forward-imaging probe can provide anesthesiologists with real-time visualization of the tissues and important landmarks, and thus could significantly improve the accuracy and the safety of the needle-based procedure,” says Yu Chen, one of the bioengineers.

That sounds like a step in the right direction to us. These precision-guided epidurals have only been tested on pigs so far, but the results have been successful.

Do epidurals make you nervous?

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