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 is also used for some kinds of surgery. For an epidural, anesthetic is injected into the lower spine. This is done by an anesthesiologist (a type of healthcare provider). Or it may be done by a nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

How pain is blocked

The spinal cord is the main pathway for pain signals. These signals travel from nerves in your body 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. The anesthetic blocks nerves below the point where it is injected. It either reduces pain or blocks most feeling. You are awake. And you still have feeling in your upper body.

During labor and delivery

An epidural can be used during labor and delivery. You may be asked to lie on your side. Or you may be asked to 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 healthcare provider or nurse anesthetist 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 

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)