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Childbirth: Epidurals

Treatment Overview

An epidural for childbirth, called an "epidural" for short, is a tiny tube that puts pain medicine directly into the area in your back around your spinal cord. This area is called the epidural space.

An epidural can be used during childbirth to partly or fully numb the lower body. The amount of medicine you get will affect how numb you are. For labor and vaginal birth, a low dose of medicine is often used to decrease pain. But it often will allow enough feeling and muscle strength so that you can push during contractions. For a cesarean birth (C-section), a higher dose can be used to help block all feeling. The epidural allows you to be awake for the birth.

You probably won't be able to walk while you have an epidural.

For some women, the medicine may slow down labor. For others, it has no effect on the length of labor. In some cases, it may make labor go faster.

It often takes about 10 minutes for the pain medicine to start to work. It may take 20 to 30 minutes to get the full effect.

The medicine is not likely to affect your baby.

How It Is Done

Needle inserted near spinal cord in seated person's back, with details of spinal injection site and epidural catheter placement.

An epidural usually involves putting a sterile guide needle and a small tube (epidural catheter) into the space around the spinal cord. (This is called the epidural space.) The catheter is placed at or below the waist.

The needle is inserted and removed, while the catheter stays in place. The catheter is taped in place up the center of your back and at the top of your shoulder.

Medicine is injected into the catheter to numb your belly and lower body. This will help relieve pain during labor and birth.

The medicine for a spinal is injected in a single dose into the fluid around the spinal cord. The benefit of a spinal is that it works quickly.

What To Expect

If you had an epidural, the catheter may be removed right after delivery. The numbness and muscle weakness in your legs will probably wear off within 2 hours after the medicine is stopped. If you had a spinal, the medicine takes a couple of hours to wear off. You may find that it's hard to urinate until all the medicine has worn off. Your back may be sore.

You may have a small bruise at the catheter or injection site. This usually gets better in 1 or 2 days. In rare cases, you may get a headache that gets worse when you sit or stand. Tell your doctor or nurse if this happens. It can be treated.

Side Effects

Serious problems aren't common. Some side effects may happen, such as a headache or nausea. The injection site may be sore. Your heart or breathing can be affected by the medicine. In rare cases, nerve damage can cause long-term numbness, weakness, or pain. Risks to the baby are rare.


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