March 20, 2021

How Does an Epidural Work?

An epidural is the most common type of anesthetic used for pain relief during labor. Below, we’ll outline what you should know before having an epidural, including information that dispels common myths. 

What’s an Epidural?

An epidural is an injection that goes into your epidural space, which is right outside of the membrane that protects your spinal cord. An epidural can be used for childbirth, as well as before and after some surgeries. During childbirth, the epidural creates a band of numbness while still allowing you to feel the pressure but not pain, so that you’re able to push during the delivery of your baby. Epidurals are used for other conditions, including:

  • Pinched nerve
  • Pain radiating from the spine
  • Herniated disc
  • Spinal stenosis

Who Shouldn’t Get an Epidural?

Epidurals aren’t for everybody and you should discuss your concerns with your doctor. They can be risky if you have certain conditions, including:

  • Anesthesia drug allergies
  • Blood clotting problems
  • An infection
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Some other medications you’re taking

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The Process of Getting an Epidural

Epidurals are given by a specialist, like a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist. Typically, you’re awake during an epidural, but for some types of surgeries, you may have it while under a general anesthetic. Here’s what happens when you get an epidural:

  • An IV drip will be placed in your arm so you can be given fluids while you’re having the epidural.
  • You’ll be asked to sit down and lean forwards or lie on your back with your knees close to your chest.
  • You’ll be given a local anesthetic to numb the skin where the epidural will be inserted.
  • A needle is used to insert a fine plastic tube called an epidural catheter into your back near the nerves that carry pain messages to your brain.
  • The needle is then removed, leaving just the catheter in your spine. 
  • You may feel mild discomfort when the epidural needle is positioned and the catheter is inserted.

How Long Does an Epidural Take to Work?

The nerves of your uterus should begin to numb within a few minutes after the initial dose. You’ll probably feel the entire numbing effect after 10-20 minutes. As the anesthetic dose starts to wear off, more doses will be given, usually every one to two hours.

Does an Epidural Hurt?

Because the specialist administering the epidural numbs the area where the epidural is administered, there’s very little pain associated with an epidural injection. Instead, you’ll feel pressure where the needle is inserted.

Risks and Side Effects

Epidurals are very safe, and serious complications are very rare. Like all medications and medical procedures, though, 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’ll be given extra fluids through an IV in your arm, and you may need to lie on your side. Sometimes, the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will give you medication to maintain your blood pressure. 
  • Sore back. Your lower back may be sore where the needle was inserted, but it shouldn’t last longer than a few days.
  • Headache. On rare occasions, the needle pierces the covering of the spinal cord, which can cause a headache that can last a few days if left untreated.

Can an Epidural Hurt My Baby?

Research on the effects of epidurals on newborns isn’t clear, and many factors can affect the health of a newborn. The length of labor, dosage, and individual characteristics of your baby makes it difficult to predetermine how much an effect the epidural will have on your baby.

One possible side effect with some babies is having difficulty latching in breastfeeding. Another is that while in-utero, a baby might become lethargic and have trouble getting into position for delivery.

Learn More About Epidurals from Baptist Health

Overall, epidurals are a very safe procedure that many women choose to help reduce the pain of childbirth. If you have any questions about epidurals, call your nearest Baptist Health location for more information. 

Next Steps and Useful Resources:

Learn about After Your Delivery and the Baptist Health Difference
Explore the Benefits of Breastfeeding and our Lactation Consultants
How to Help Boost a Baby’s Immune System
What Does it Feel Like to Have Postpartum Depression?

Learn More.