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What Is Epidural Anesthesia?

Cross section of lower spine with needle inserted just outside sac surrounding spinal cord.

Epidural is a kind of anesthesia. This is a medicine that blocks pain. It can be used for labor and delivery. It's also used for some kinds of surgery. For an epidural, anesthetic is injected into the lower spine. This is done by an anesthesiologist. Or it may be done by a nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

How pain is blocked

The spinal cord is the main path for pain signals. These signals travel from nerves through the spinal cord to your brain. The brain registers them as pain. The epidural blocks the nerves that enter your lower spine.

Numbing your lower body

Anesthetic is injected through the skin of your back into the part of the spinal canal called the epidural space. This blocks nerves below the point where it's injected. It can reduce pain or block most feeling. You are awake. And you still have feeling in your upper body.

For labor and delivery

An epidural can be used during labor and delivery. You may be asked to lie on your side. Or you may sit on the edge of your bed and lean over. First, your healthcare provider numbs a small part of your lower spine with a local anesthetic. Your provider then puts a needle into the epidural space. A thin tube (catheter) is threaded through the needle. The needle is removed. The anesthetic then goes through the catheter. In some cases, a pump is attached to the catheter. This gives you a constant dose of anesthetic as long as you need it.

Risks and possible complications of epidural anesthesia

Risks and possible complications include:

  • A sudden drop in blood pressure, which may cause the baby's heart rate to drop temporarily

  • Severe headache after birth

  • Soreness of the back for several days

  • Dizziness, seizures, breathing problems, allergic reaction to the anesthetic, nerve damage, or paralysis (all very rare)

When to seek medical care

Follow your healthcare provider's care instructions after the procedure. Call your provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Signs of infection at the epidural site, such as redness, swelling, warmth, or drainage

  • Fever over 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as advised by your healthcare provider

  • Chills

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

  • Numbness or weakness your legs that doesn’t go away

  • Severe headache

  • Trouble controlling your bladder

  • Pain that isn’t relieved by pain medicine

  • Other symptoms as advised by your healthcare provider

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Sacks, Daniel, MD, FACOG
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2018
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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