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Learning About an Epidural Catheter for Childbirth

Placement and position of an epidural catheter

What is an epidural catheter?

An epidural catheter, 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. A low dose of medicine will decrease pain. But it often will allow enough feeling and muscle strength to push during contractions. A higher dose may block all feeling. This may make it harder for you to push. In most cases, the medicine can be decreased or stopped if it makes it hard to push.

You probably won't be able to walk while you have an epidural. That's because it lowers your blood pressure, which can make you feel dizzy or faint when you stand up.

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.

An epidural also can be used to block pain during a caesarean section (C-section). This is the delivery of a baby through a cut (incision) that the doctor makes in the lower belly. The epidural allows you to be awake for the birth.

How is an epidural for childbirth done?

A nurse will put a tube, called an IV, in your vein. You will get fluids through the IV during your labour.

A doctor (called an anesthesiologist) gives an epidural.

You will sit with your back curved out. Or you may lie on your side with your knees pulled toward your belly. The doctor will ask you to be as still as you can. He or she will give you a shot of numbing medicine in the skin on your back. Then the doctor will put a needle through the numbed skin into your epidural space in your back. The catheter, a tiny tube about the size of a pencil lead, is inserted through the needle. You may feel some pressure as the catheter is placed, but it should not hurt. The doctor will take out the needle. But the catheter will stay in your back to supply the medicine. Usually this procedure is no more painful than getting an IV.

After the catheter is in place, the doctor will tape it to your back. You will feel the tape on your skin, but you should not feel the catheter. You may have a cold feeling on your skin as the medicine passes through the part of the catheter that is taped 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 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 is 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 call line 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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