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What is Epidural Anesthesia?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated May 17, 2024
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Epidural anesthesia is a type of pain reliever. It is often used by pregnant women during childbirth to reduce labor pain. Epidurals may also be used for surgery. Epidural anesthesia will not cause the patient to lose consciousness. It is a local anesthetic, which means that it will numb a specific area of the body.

This medication works by blocking the body’s nerve impulses. It may be given to a patient in combination with other drugs. For example, a narcotic like fentanyl, morphine, or epinephrine may be given to the patient, along with the epidural. Doctors may do this to lengthen the amount of time the pain relievers work or, in the case of childbirth, to maintain the mother’s blood pressure.

Epidural anesthesia can be administered by an anesthesiologist or an obstetrician. The patient will be required to either sit up or lie on her left side. She will also need to arch her back. The patient must maintain this position to both heighten the effectiveness of the drug, and to prevent any possible problems with administering it.

After disinfecting the skin of the lower back to prevent infection, an injection with another local anesthetic will be used to numb the area. The anesthesiologist will then insert a needle into the area around the spine. A catheter is threaded through it so that, when the needle is removed, the catheter will stay in place. This allows the doctor to give the patient either continuous doses of anesthesia, or periodic infusions. Tape can be used to hold the catheter in place.

Epidural anesthesia is a popular choice of women giving birth. The drug provides pain relief and comfort, especially during prolonged labor. It also allows the patient to remain conscious throughout the birth, even if the infant is delivered via Caesarean section (C-section).

Before requesting epidural anesthesia, the patient should know about the possible risks and disadvantages of using this medication. Epidural anesthesia may cause an abrupt drop in blood pressure. Doctors administering this drug should periodically check the patient’s blood pressure. This condition may be treated with other medication, oxygen, or intravenous (IV) fluids.

There is also the possibility that epidural anesthesia will result in spinal fluid leakage, which may cause a severe headache. While possible, this is rare. Another possible complication is permanent nerve damage in the injection area.

During labor, a woman given an epidural will need to periodically shift positions. This will prevent the progression of labor from slowing or stopping entirely. Epidural anesthesia may also make it more difficult for the woman to push during contractions.

This medication may result in some side effects. Some patients may experience nausea, problems passing urine, or a ringing in the ears. It may also cause shivering, backache, and soreness of the injection area. The patient may have difficulty walking for several hours following labor, as the lower half of the body may feel numb.

For many women, an epidural anesthetic is the medication of choice to ease labor. Before receiving the drug, the patient needs to disclose all medical conditions and any medications she is taking to her doctor. Some patients may be unable to use an epidural, due to the use of blood thinning medications or existing conditions, such as an infection.

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