Epidurals: Essential epidural information

Some women find bearing the pain of childbirth an enriching experience, but many choose to have an epidural that provides pain relief to help the birth of their baby to go more smoothly.

Epidurals: Essential epidural information

Epidural © iStockphoto What is an epidural?

An epidural is a local anaesthetic administered during childbirth to women who don't want to give birth to their baby in pain. It is injected into the epidural space that surrounds the spinal cord and numbs the nerves that lead to the lesser pelvis only.

When and how is it administered?

When your contractions start to become too painful, the doctor will give you an injection in the back while you either lie on your side or sit on the bed.
The needle is inserted between two vertebrae to reach the epidural space which surrounds the spinal cord. A tube is then inserted into the needle, the needle is then removed and the anaesthetic injected.
Your blood pressure and heartbeat are monitored throughout and it takes 10-15 minutes for the pain to lessen after the injection.

What does an epidural involve

  • Like any anaesthetic, an epidural requires the presence of an anaesthetist. If you have any problems in your pregnancy that may affect you having an epidural then it may be recommended that you meet your anaesthetist prior to going into labour.
  • You can have an epidural any time whilst established in labour. However, if the labour is progressing quickly and delivery is anticipated as imminent, it may not be possible to get it in place before your baby is born.
  • Any woman can have an epidural unless it's not advised for medical reasons (fever, an infection in the area to be injected, coagulation problems (bleeding disorders) or neurological illness).
  • Episiotomies and stitches are painless under the influence of an epidural.
  • You can also give birth by Caesarian section under epidural without a general anaesthetic (unless you specifically ask for one).

Advantages of an epidural

  • Epidurals make birth more smooth, less tiring, and easier for the dad-to-be if you're visibly in less pain.
  • You remain conscious and all your muscles function as normal; only the transmission of pain is blocked.
  • You recover more quickly and can be on your feet again 4 - 5 hours after the birth.

Disadvantages of having an epidural

  • There can be side effects, most of which are benign. Serious accidents are extremely rare, as are complications.
  • The drug can also trigger allergies or intolerances. Sometimes minor inflammation of the meninges (the membranes that envelop the central nervous system) can occur and cause pain when you stretch your back. This disappears within a few months.
  • The common fear of paralysis is completely unfounded: the epidural is injected around, not into, the spinal cord. Either the spinal cord or a large amount of nerves have to be destroyed to cause paralysis, and there is no possibility of this happening the way epidurals are injected.
  • Epidurals do not always work, you may not feel the full effect and may also experience windows of pain.
  • Epidurals may increase the chance of you having to have an instrumental or Caesarean delivery.
  • Epidurals may also increase the duration of your labour.

Alternative ways of coping with the pain of giving birth

Other forms of pain relief in labour include the following:
Entonox (gas and air)
Pharmacological opiates such as Pethidine

More information about epidurals

Published by Sarah Horrocks
22 May 2011
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