Study finds no link between epidural and autism

It's routine when women are giving birth for epidural anesthesia to be administered. The epidurals are commonly given to help prevent pain during childbirth. A recent study refutes a previous study that claimed there was a link between epidural anesthesia and an increased risk for autism. Researchers on the new study found no link between epidural administration and an increased risk of autism later in life.

Study senior author Alex Butwick, MD, from Stanford said that the team found no evidence for any "genuine link" between having an epidural and putting a baby at risk of autism spectrum disorder. Researchers say that epidurals are the most common form of pain relief given during childbirth and are used by about three-quarters of women who go into labor in the US. Autism impacts one in every 54 children worldwide.

Study researchers say that the vast majority of evidence around epidurals, including data from the new study, shows that an epidural is the most effective means of providing pain relief to women during childbirth and that serious complications are rare. Researchers say that pain relief administered via an epidural poses a lower risk to the mother and the baby than general anesthesia that might be required if an emergency C-section is needed.

A study conducted in October 2020 said there was a 37 percent greater risk of autism if the mother was given an epidural. However, that study was criticized for failing to account for socioeconomic, genetic, and medical risk factors for autism separate from the epidural administration. Other experts noted that it was biologically implausible for the epidural to increase autism risk.

The new study examined epidural use during childbirth and later diagnosis of autism in Manitoba, Canada. It looked at 123,175 children born between 2005 and 2016, following those children through 2019. Of those studied, 38.2 percent were exposed to epidural anesthesia during labor, and the rest were not. Of those exposed to epidurals during labor, 2.1 percent were later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder compared to 1.7 percent of children who weren't exposed to epidurals.