5 Questions about Epidurals Answered


Over the past several decades, epidurals have grown in popularity with more than 60 percent of women opting to receive this pain-relieving procedure. If you are considering an epidural, it is important to understand how an epidural works, what to expect and the pros and cons of an epidural. Here are 5 Questions about Epidurals Answered to help guide you as you prepare for labor.

What is an Epidural?

Q. Epidurals help minimize pain during labor, but what is an epidural?

A. An epidural is a type of regional anesthesia that blocks pain in a part of the body. Although it is called anesthesia, the goal of an epidural is to provide analgesia, or pain relief, versus anesthesia, which is total lack of feeling. If requested, an epidural can be used during labor to block nerve impulses in the lower spinal region.

How Do You Receive an Epidural and Does an Epidural Hurt?

Q. Do they really stick a needle in your back? Doesn’t that hurt?

A. In short – yes, a needle is inserted into the lower back. However, before this occurs an anesthesiologist, obstetrician or nurse-anesthetist will administer a small amount of local anesthetic to numb the area. After that, a needle is inserted into the space surrounding the spinal cord in the lower back and a small catheter is passed through the needle. The needle is then removed, leaving the catheter in place to provide medication. The catheter will be removed following delivery.

Some women report minor pain, while others say they only felt a small amount of pressure because the area was numbed prior to insertion.

What are the Pros and Cons of Epidural Anesthesia?

Q. Besides pain relief, what are the advantages of an epidural? Are there disadvantages to getting an epidural?

A. Benefits of an epidural include:
· The ability to provide pain relief throughout labor
· Allows you to rest if experiencing prolonged labor
· The ability to control dosage and potency administered depending on pain levels
· Can help reduce stress by providing pain relief, allowing women the opportunity to focus and regain strength
· Normal epidurals allow you to still be active in the birth of your child

Disadvantages of an epidural include:
· Can cause your blood pressure to suddenly drop
· May make pushing more difficult and additional medical help might be needed
· Sometimes causes backaches, nausea or difficulty urinating
· Undesired effects tend to occur when larger doses of medication are administered

Do Epidurals Work for Everyone?

Q. Do epidurals always work? 

A. In most cases, epidurals are effective in reducing pain associated with labor. However, some women have reported the medication worked more on one side of the body than the other. Additionally, if the catheter moves slightly, spotty pain relief may occur. If you notice this problem, you can alert your nurse, who can have the catheter adjusted or reinserted.

Can Midwives Administer Pain Medication and Epidurals?

Q. OB/GYNs and midwives have different medical training and provide distinctive types of care, but is it true that midwives do not or cannot provide pain medication?

A. While many midwives are advocates for natural childbirth, a common myth is that they will not give a woman pain medications during labor. Midwives can prescribe medications and recommend an epidural for pain relief if that is your preference during labor.

Is an Epidural Right for Me?

Most women can receive an epidural unless:

  • You are taking blood thinners
  • You have abnormally low blood pressure
  • You are hemorrhaging or in shock
  • You have had an allergic reaction to local anesthetics in the past
  • You have an infection in your back
  • You have low platelet counts
  • You are not at least four centimeters dilated
  • Your labor is moving too quickly to administer an epidural

Even If you are a candidate for epidural anesthesia, it is important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all birth plan. Each woman must consider potential pros and cons of receiving an epidural and apply these to her own circumstances.

Giving Birth at UnityPoint Health – Allen Hospital

UnityPoint Health - Allen Hospital provides comprehensive midwife and OB/GYN services to women in Waterloo, Iowa, and the surrounding area. Our team of dedicated caregivers provides individual care based on the expecting parents’ birth plan from the comfort of our updated, Level II birthing center. To learn more about our private birthing suites or obstetric services, click here or call (319) 235-3620.

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