How Effective is Epidural Pain Relief?

N. Madison

Epidurals are typically effective for pain relief. For example, epidural pain relief is usually effective for use during labor and childbirth. In many cases, it allows for a mostly pain-free birthing experience. Epidurals may also prove effective for other types of pain, however. For example, they may be an effective treatment for back and neck pain as well as the pain caused by pinched or damaged nerves.

An epidural may help treat neck pain.
An epidural may help treat neck pain.

Epidural pain relief differs from oral and intravenous (IV) medications because epidurals are not sent into the bloodstream to deliver pain relief. Instead, an epidural is injected into the space that surrounds the dura, which is the membrane that covers a patient's spinal chord and nerve roots. This space is called the epidural space, and injecting pain relief medications into it delivers effective relief to specific regions of a person's body.

Severe chronic lower back pain is frequently treated through a nerve block known as a lumbar epidural.
Severe chronic lower back pain is frequently treated through a nerve block known as a lumbar epidural.

An epidural is often used to block pain to the lower part of a woman's body when she is having a baby. This type of pain relief is often preferred during labor and childbirth because it may not leave the woman overly sleepy, and it is less likely to have an adverse effect on a woman's baby than IV drugs. Additionally, it typically delivers more reliable pain relief than most IV or oral medications.

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An epidural involves the injection of an anti-inflammatory or anesthetic into the space around the dura membrane, or membrane surrounding the nerve roots and spinal cord.
An epidural involves the injection of an anti-inflammatory or anesthetic into the space around the dura membrane, or membrane surrounding the nerve roots and spinal cord.

While many people are most familiar with the use of epidural pain relief for labor and childbirth, it can also provide effective pain relief in other situations. For example, it may be used to provide relief from back pain. In such a case, a pain reliever and steroid medication may be injected into the epidural space. The patient may then experience an immediate period of numbness that wears off after a few hours — pain relief often starts within about three days of the injection. Depending on the type and severity of a person's pain as well as the medications that are used, pain relief may last for a few months to a full year after the epidural is administered.

Epidural pain relief can be effective for short-term use, such as in childbirth, as well as for long-term use, including the treatment of neck and back pain. Some people do experience side effects of its use, however. For example, some people notice numbness in one of their legs after epidurals are administered. Others may experience lowered blood pressure or itchy skin. Some people may even have difficulty urinating after an epidural has been administered.

Epidurals are not just used for pregnant women; they can also be used for back pain.
Epidurals are not just used for pregnant women; they can also be used for back pain.

Discussion Comments

MissDaphne

@ElizaBennett - Yowza, sounds like your friend had a really terrifying experience!

It's worth noting, though, that for some women, having labor pain relief allows them to deliver vaginally and avoid a c-section. I was certainly one of them. I had a long labor and got very tired. The epidural allowed me to take a nap (by dulling my pain) and when I woke up, I was much further along. Without the epidural, I think I would have run out of energy and had to be cut open.

Epidural medicine is, of course, also used for c-sections. Had I needed one, they would just have had to change the medicine coming into my back. And, of course, it's a wonderful invention for necessary c-sections because it allows mom to not feel a thing but to be awake for the birth of her child. My cousin had an emergency section under general anesthesia and she was just devastated to have missed it. When she had a repeat C-section with her second child and was able to be awake, she had less depression afterwards.

ElizaBennett

Women planning an epidural for childbirth should educate themselves about possible side effects. While it is true that they do not make you sleepy, there can be other problems. For one thing, they don't always work and sometimes for whatever reason you can't get one, so you should definitely be prepared with alternate, natural pain management strategies.

For another, they can sometimes make you go completely numb. A friend of mine had a whole cascade of interventions that made me sad to hear. Her water broke and contractions didn't get strong soon enough to please the doctor, so it was Pitocin for her. Then that hurt, so an epidural. The epidural made one of her legs go completely numb, so she had to have a nurse assigned to just her leg! Then, perhaps because of the numbness, baby wasn't coming out fast enough and got distressed, so doc had to use forceps. And following the delivery, she hemorrhaged.

Now, it's possible that she would have had the same result in a natural childbirth, but it's less likely. Doctors like epidurals because they keep women in bed and make for a doctor-managed experience, but there are other ways to have babies.

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