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Learning About an Epidural for Childbirth

Placement and position of an epidural catheter

What is an epidural for childbirth?

An epidural for childbirth, called an "epidural" for short, is a tiny tube that puts pain medicine directly into the area in your back around your spinal cord. This area is called the epidural space.

An epidural can be used during childbirth to partly or fully numb the lower body. The amount of medicine you get will affect how numb you are. For labour and vaginal birth, a low dose of medicine is often used to decrease pain. But it often will allow enough feeling and muscle strength so that you can push during contractions. For a caesarean birth (C-section), a higher dose can be used to help block all feeling. The epidural allows you to be awake for the birth.

You probably won't be able to walk while you have an epidural.

For some women, the medicine may slow down labour. For others, it has no effect on the length of labour. In some cases, it may make labour go faster.

It often takes about 10 minutes for the pain medicine to start to work. It may take 20 to 30 minutes to get the full effect.

The medicine is not likely to affect your baby.

How is an epidural for childbirth done?

You will sit with your back curved out. Or you may lie on your side with your knees pulled toward your belly. The doctor or nurse will ask you to be as still as you can. You will get a shot of numbing medicine in the skin on your back. Then the doctor or nurse will put a needle through the numbed skin into your epidural space in your back. The catheter, which is a tiny tube about the size of a pencil lead, is inserted through the needle. The doctor or nurse will take out the needle. But the catheter will stay in your back to supply the medicine.

After the catheter is in place, the doctor or nurse will tape it to your back.

Your doctor probably will take out the epidural soon after your baby is born.

What can you expect after an epidural for childbirth?

The epidural catheter may be removed right after delivery. The numbness and muscle weakness in your legs will probably wear off within 2 hours after the epidural medicine is stopped. You may find that it's hard to urinate until all the medicine has worn off. Your back may be sore. You may have a small bruise at the catheter site. This usually gets better in 1 or 2 days. In rare cases, an epidural may cause a headache that gets worse when you sit or stand. Tell your doctor if you get a headache after your epidural. Your doctor can treat it.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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