Is There No Risk or a Slight Risk Between Epidurals and Autism?

October 10, 2021

Two New Studies Are Interpreted Two Different Ways

For the most part, two large studies published last month rejected an association between epidural anesthesia given to mothers in labor and the development of autism in their children. Both studies were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Interestingly, each of these new studies’ findings contradict another study from last year which connected epidurals to a higher risk of autism. At the time of its publishing, this previous study received widespread criticism from researchers and professional medical societies for its conclusion. Just a few months later, yet another analysis refuted the earlier controversial study when it also showed no association between the two variables. These two current studies probed the suspected connection between epidurals and autism even further using different populations and statistical methods to obtain their findings. The first new study examined health records of 388,254 children born in British Columbia, Canada between 2000 and 2014. Approximately 1.5% of the Canadian children exposed to an epidural were later diagnosed with autism, compared with 1.3% of unexposed children, suggesting a small association. Although, after further analyses of the data to control for factors such as maternal genetics and socioeconomic status, the small association weakened. Ultimately, the Canadian research team determined that women who utilized an epidural while in labor were not more likely to have a child who would later develop autism. The second recent study analyzed data from 479,178 children born in Denmark from 2006 through 2013. This study’s design included factors such as family history of autism and maternal psychiatric history. After their analysis, the researchers found no significant association between autism and epidurals.  Of particular interest is how differently the findings of these studies were interpreted by two different medical/scientific outlets. Spectrum magazine ran the headline, “No link between epidurals and autism, two studies confirm.” While MedPage Today ran, “Does Slight Autism Risk With Epidurals Matter?” The article in MedPage Today reported that these two studies indicated that a higher autism risk in the 10-15% range could not be ruled out, which contradicts the Spectrum story and headline. One astute commenter on the MedPage Today website pointed out that pregnant mothers should be the ones to decide if a slight autism risk with epidurals matter, not the people managing the birth. The reader added, “Afterall, it will be women who will be dealing with potential life-changing consequences down the road, not providers.”

Spectrum Article

MedPage Today Article

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