An epidural is an injection in the back to stop you feeling pain in part of your body.
This page covers epidural anaesthesia, a type of epidural commonly given for pain relief in childbirth and in some types of surgery.
When epidurals are used
Epidurals can be used:
- during childbirth, including caesareans
- during some types of surgery
- after some types of surgery
Steroid medication can also be given as an epidural injection to treat back or leg pain caused by sciatica or a slipped (prolapsed) disc.
Preparing for an epidural
If you have any concerns or questions about having an epidural, discuss these with your doctor. Let them know about any medication you're taking.
You may be given specific advice about eating, drinking and medication before the epidural.
As you won't be able to drive for 24 hours after having an epidural, you'll need to arrange for someone to give you a lift home.
How an epidural is given
Epidurals are given by a specialist doctor called an anaesthetist.
You're usually awake during an epidural, but for some types of surgery you may have it while under general anaesthetic.
- A 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 side with your knees drawn up.
- You'll be given an injection of local anaesthetic to numb the skin where the epidural is to be inserted.
- A needle is used to insert a fine plastic tube called an epidural catheter between the bones of your back.
- The needle is then removed, leaving just the catheter in your back.
- You may feel mild discomfort when the epidural needle is positioned and the catheter is inserted.
The epidural can be inserted at different levels of your back depending on the area of the body that requires pain relief.
Pain relief drugs are then given through the catheter. These take about 20-30 minutes to take full effect.
Your chest, tummy and legs may feel numb while the epidural is being used, and your legs may not feel as strong as normal.
While the catheter remains in your back, it can be used to top up your pain relief drugs manually or using an automatic pump.
This can be for several hours (during childbirth) or for a few days (after major surgery).
Mobile epidurals, which use a lower dose of pain relief drugs, are sometimes used in childbirth, allowing you to walk around during labour.
Recovering from an epidural
When the epidural is stopped, the numbness usually lasts for a few hours before its effects begin to wear off.
While the drugs wear off, you'll probably be advised to rest in a lying or sitting position until the feeling in your legs returns.
This can take a couple of hours, and you may feel a slight tingling sensation in your skin.
Tell the doctor or nurse if you feel any pain. They can give you medicines to help control it.
Do not drive, operate machinery or drink alcohol for 24 hours after having an epidural.
Risks and side effects of an epidural
Epidurals are usually safe, but there's a small risk of side effects and complications, including:
- low blood pressure, which can make you feel lightheaded or nauseous
- temporary loss of bladder control
- itchy skin
- feeling sick
- nerve damage
Read more about the side effects and complications of an epidural.
Epidurals are usually safe, but as with all medical treatments, side effects and complications can sometimes occur.
For more on side effects of epidurals in labour, read about pain relief in labour.
Low blood pressure
It's normal for blood pressure to fall a little when you have an epidural. Sometimes this can make you feel sick.
Your blood pressure will be closely monitored. If necessary, fluids and medication can be passed through a drip to keep your blood pressure normal.
Loss of bladder control
After having an epidural, you may not be able to feel when your bladder is full because the epidural affects the surrounding nerves.
A catheter may be inserted into your bladder to allow urine to drain away. Your bladder control will return to normal as soon as the epidural wears off.
This can be a side effect of the pain relief drugs that may be used in your epidural.
Medication can be given to help the itching, or the drug in the epidural can be changed.
Feeling sick is less common with an epidural than with other pain relief methods like morphine and other opiates.
It can be treated with anti-sickness medicines, or by raising your blood pressure if it's low.
Inadequate pain relief
The epidural may not block all your pain. You may be offered an additional or alternative pain relief method.
A severe headache can be caused if the bag of fluid that surrounds the spine is accidentally punctured. You may need specific treatment for the headache.
A procedure known as a blood patch may be used to seal up the puncture. It involves taking a small sample of your blood and injecting it into the puncture.
When the blood thickens (clots), the hole will be sealed and your headache will stop.
Not all headaches require a blood patch. Your anaesthetist will discuss your options with you.
Occasionally, some drugs used in the epidural can cause slow breathing or drowsiness.
You will be monitored closely to spot this and it can be treated easily.
Temporary nerve damage
The needle or epidural tube can damage nerves, but this is uncommon. This can cause loss of feeling or movement in parts of the lower body.
The most common symptom is a small numb area with normal movement and strength. This usually gets better after a few days or weeks, but can sometimes take months.
An infection can occasionally develop around the skin next to the epidural tube.
It's rare for the infection to spread. Antibiotics may be necessary or, rarely, emergency surgery.
Permanent nerve damage
In rare cases, an epidural can lead to permanent loss of feeling or movement in, for example, one or both legs.
The causes are:
- direct damage from the epidural needle or catheter
- infection deep in the epidural area or near the spinal cord
- bleeding in the epidural area, causing pressure on the spinal cord
- accidentally injecting the wrong drugs down the epidural catheter
These are rare events, and anaesthetists undergo extensive training to reduce the chances of these complications.
Nerve damage can also happen for other reasons during surgery unrelated to the epidural.
Other very rare complications of an epidural include:
- fits (convulsions)
- severe breathing difficulties
Before deciding to have an epidural, you should discuss the procedure with your anaesthetist.
They can provide further information and advice on the risks of developing complications.