An epidural is the most common type of anesthetic used for pain relief during labor. Here’s what you should know before having an epidural, including information that dispels some common myths.
If you choose to have an epidural, an anesthesiologist will insert a needle and a tiny tube, called a catheter, in the lower part of your back. The needle is removed and the catheter left in place for delivery of the medication through the tube as needed. You can begin an epidural at any time during your labor — in the beginning, in the middle, or even toward the end — in consultation with your physician.
The anesthesiologist will numb the area where the epidural is administered, which may cause a momentary stinging or burning sensation. But because of this numbing, there is very little pain associated with an epidural injection. Instead, most patients will feel some pressure as the needle is inserted.
An epidural provides anesthesia that creates a band of numbness from your bellybutton to your upper legs. It allows you to be awake and alert throughout labor, as well as to feel pressure. The ability to feel second-stage labor pressure enables you to push when it’s time to give birth to your baby. It can take about 15 minutes for the pain medication to work.
You can continue to receive pain relief through an epidural for as long as you need it. The amount of medication you receive through the epidural can be increased or decreased as necessary.
There is no credible evidence that it does either. When a woman needs a C-section, other factors usually are at play, including the size or position of the baby or slow progression of labor due to other issues. With an epidural, you might be able to feel contractions — they just won’t hurt — and you’ll be able to push effectively. There is some evidence that epidurals can speed the first stage of labor by allowing the mother to relax.
The amount of medication that reaches the baby from the epidural is very small, and there is no evidence that it causes any harm.
Epidurals are very safe; serious complications are extremely rare. However, as with all medications and medical procedures, there are potential side effects:
- Decrease in blood pressure – The medication may lower your blood pressure, which may slow your baby’s heart rate. To make this less likely, you will be given extra fluids through a tube in your arm (IV), and you may need to lie on your side. Sometimes, your anesthesiologist will give you a medication to maintain your blood pressure.
- Sore back – Your lower back may be sore where the needle was inserted to deliver the medication. This soreness should last no more than a few days. There is no evidence that an epidural can cause permanent back pain.
- Headache – On rare occasions, the needle pierces the covering of the spinal cord, which can cause a headache that may last for a few days if left untreated. If this situation arises, discuss the treatment options with your anesthesiologist.
A spinal block is sometimes used in combination with an epidural during labor to provide immediate pain relief. A spinal block, like an epidural, involves an injection in the lower back. While you sit or lie on your side in bed, a small amount of medication is injected into the spinal fluid to numb the lower half of the body. It brings good relief from pain and starts working quickly, but it lasts only an hour or two and is usually given only once during labor. The epidural provides continued pain relief after the spinal block wears off.
Anesthesiologists are committed to patient safety and high-quality care, and have the necessary knowledge to understand and treat the entire human body.