Epidural anesthesia refers to the placement of a catheter into the spinal space to administer medication to numb the abdomen and legs.
An epidural is used to decrease pain during labor. An epidural directly affects the nerves that come from your spinal cord. It numbs the pain in the lower half of your body. It will also help to relieve the lower back pain that is often associated with childbirth.
After an epidural, you should no longer be able to feel:
An epidural may make labor take longer. It may also increase the chance that you are not able to feel your contractions or feelings to push. If this happens, the medication can be decreased until some feeling returns.
An epidural can lower the mother’s blood pressure. This can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches you and your baby. Before an epidural is given, you will be given IV fluids. The baby’s heart rate will be watched with a fetal heart rate monitor attached to your body. You will be positioned on your left side, so that your enlarged uterus will not compress the large blood vessels returning blood to your heart.
You may have a headache after having an epidural. This can be treated.
You cannot have epidural anesthesia if the following occurs:
Your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate will be monitored. Your baby's heart rate will be checked. Before an epidural can be placed, IV fluids will be started.
You will need to arch your back and remain very still. You will either be lying on your side or sitting up. The area around your waistline on your middle back will be wiped with an antiseptic solution to reduce the chance of infection. The solution may feel cold on your skin. A small area on your back will be injected with a local anesthetic to make it numb. A needle will be inserted into the numbed area in your lower back. A catheter (small tube) will be threaded through the needle into the space that surrounds your spinal cord in your lower back. The needle will be removed and the catheter taped to your back. The catheter will be used to put more medicine in, if necessary.
After the epidural is placed in your back, you will need to move from side to side. Doctors will attach a belt that monitors the heart rate of your baby. You may experience the following side effects:
The initial numbing of the walls of the uterus will take only a few minutes. You should feel the full effect of the pain relief within 20 minutes after the catheter is placed. Additional doses of medication can be given through the catheter so that the numbness lasts until the baby is born.
Placing the needle into your back may hurt a little bit. Most people feel only a little pressure as the catheter is placed in the lower back.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
Comfort measures (pharmacologic) during labor. DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116857/Comfort-measures-pharmacologic-during-labor. Updated June 20, 2016. Accessed January 30, 2017.
Whitley N. A Manual of Clinical Obstetrics. Philadelphia, PA: JB Lippincott Company; 1985:343:619-621.
Last reviewed January 2016 by Andrea Chisholm, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.