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What Happens When You Get an Epidural?


Up to 60 percent of pregnant women choose to have an epidural for pain relief during childbirth. Even though it’s accepted as a generally safe procedure, many women agonize over whether or not to have the procedure.

As you prepare for your baby’s birth, it’s important to have a plan and to learn as much as possible about the procedures you will have. If you’re considering having this method of pain relief, you need to know all about the process and what you may experience.

Let’s take a look.

What Is an Epidural

This widely used procedure is a type of regional anesthesia used to block pain. It provides pain relief or analgesia rather than anesthesia which leads to a complete loss of feeling.

It works by blocking nerve impulses from the lower spine which results in a decrease in sensation and pain during contractions and birth.

Epidurals are local anesthetics and are usually delivered with pain medications such as narcotics or opioids to reduce the amount of local anesthetic needed.

How a Doctor Performs the Procedure

Before your active labor starts, a nurse will administer intravenous (IV) fluids, and you should continue to receive fluids throughout your labor and delivery. Normally, an anesthesiologist will perform the procedure.

You may receive your epidural either while lying on your left side or while sitting up, but you probably won’t get to choose. The nurse or anesthesiologist will use an antiseptic solution on a small area of your back.

The anesthesiologist will insert a needle into the numbed area of your lower back. He or she will thread a catheter into the epidural area then remove the needle.

At this point, the catheter is in place to deliver the pain medications as needed.

Effects on My Baby and Me

An epidural cannot slow cervix dilation or affect whether or not you will need a cesarean section. But it could prolong your pushing phase of delivery by about twenty minutes.

Occasionally, the procedure can cause you to develop a fever. The doctor must assess whether this is due to the procedure or another problem such as an underlying affection.

An upside for the mother-to-be is experiencing childbirth relatively pain-free. Excessive pain causes the body to release stress hormones. This can increase your heart rate and divert blood from your uterus.

Pain can also increase your breathing and even cause you to hyperventilate. This could also divert blood from the placenta.

Having this procedure can help prevent a painful birth and keep you calmer and relaxed throughout the process. And researchers have found no significant difference in the APGAR scores of babies born to mothers using epidurals compared to babies born without any medications used.

Will the Procedure Hurt

Some women are scared of having an epidural. In fact, some fear it more than childbirth. But most women, after having one, find it was very helpful and not scary at all.

Many say it’s is less painful than having contractions or even getting an IV. The size of the needle can look a bit intimidating though.

But you won’t ever feel it. That’s because the nurse or anesthesiologist will first use a tiny needle to administer numbing medicine.

That may sting a little bit. Then, within 15 minutes you will be pain-free.

Where the Needle Is Positioned

The doctor will find your epidural space before beginning the procedure. He or she will then thread the catheter that will deliver the pain medicine.

Some women are afraid because they think the needle will be inserted into the nerve or the spine. But this is not the case.

The catheter goes into an area of the back where the nerves pass through. This allows you to have effective pain relief with very little risk.

Two Types of Procedures

There are two types of these procedures that hospitals use. The medications and dosages will vary depending on the hospital and anesthesiologist.

With a regular epidural, the anesthesia is combined with a narcotic such as morphine or fentanyl that’s injected into the epidural space. The additional pain medicines help to reduce side effects of the anesthesia.

With a combined spinal-epidural (CSE), the anesthesiologist injects the needle in a different area and threads a catheter into the outer membrane of the spinal cord. This is the intrathecal area.

This type of pain relief allows the mother more freedom to move around and change positions during the birth process. If the CSE isn’t controlling your pain adequately, you can ask for the other type.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about what type of procedure is best for you.

Benefits of the Procedure

  • If your labor is prolonged, you can rest comfortably.
  • When pain isn’t an issue, many women have a calmer birth experience.
  • Usually, with this procedure, you are alert and can be an active participant in the birth process(including cesarean births).
  • You will be less stressed and exhausted if you are not in pain.

Risks Involved

  • The procedure can cause a drop in blood pressure. In this case, you may need IV fluids or medication to lower your blood pressure.
  • You could experience a headache if there’s a leakage of spinal fluid. If it is severe or persists, a procedure called a blood patch can remedy the problem.
  • Having this procedure can slow the birth process or make pushing harder to do. Interventions such as medication, forceps, or a cesarean might be needed.
  • In rare cases, nerve damage has occurred.

Do What’s Right For You

Although this procedure is generally a safe way to control pain during childbirth, no one can tell you what’s best for you and your baby. You have to weigh the pros and cons and talk to your doctor to determine if it’s for you.

Many women who opt for natural childbirth end up having an epidural when the pain becomes unbearable. Other women are determined to have a natural birth and make it through beautifully.

Unless there is a medical reason for you to have one, you should make the decision after you have considered all your options. In over half of all hospital births, women choose to have this pain-relieving procedure.

But for some women, the choice is a difficult one, and of course, you want your baby’s birth to be a positive experience. It’s always best to do your research and speak to your doctor.

We know how important it is to be well-informed when you are expecting. Be sure to check out our website and helpful pregnancy posts.

About Author

Hi, I’m Stephanie. I graduated college with a business degree and a minor in biology. I met my husband at a business convention and was happily marriage and pregnant within the first two years after saying the words “ I do”. Jennifer is the eldest of the three. Being pregnant with her, my first, I researched everything pregnancy related and read nearly every book. Giving birth to Anthony and Matty seemed more natural and less stressful the third time around. I’m happy to share what knowledge I have gathered and learn new things from other mothers. From morning sickness to Anencephaly, or potty training to thumb sucking, I have books and resource guides to share.