Labor & Delivery

How Does An Epidural Work?

I’m trying to decide whether or not to get an epidural. Can you give me the basics on how it works?

Epidural medication is used to block the transmission of pain impulses so you can have a more comfortable labor. Here’s how an epidural works:

Epidural medication is delivered through a tiny, flexible tube that’s inserted into your lower back. The tube (called a “catheter”) goes into the epidural space, which is outside of the spinal cord. That space contains all of the nerves that go to the lower part of the body, so doctors can administer special medication (often a local anesthetic, or numbing medicine, combined with a narcotic, or pain-relieving medicine) through the tube near those nerves, so pain impulses don’t reach your brain. “The medication basically dazes the nerves, so you don’t feel the pain impulses coming in,” says William Camann, MD, an anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and coauthor of Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth.

The epidural stays in your back so you can continue to receive the medicine throughout labor. Many hospitals now have patient-controlled epidurals, which allow moms-to-be to control the flow of pain-relieving epidural medication. Moms push a button when their pain increases; the machine is set so that it will not deliver too much medication. Patient-controlled epidurals let women tailor their pain relief to their unique birth experiences.

Plus, more from The Bump:

Delivery Room Tools Decoded

Shocking Confessions from the Delivery Room

Do Many People Have Complications from Epidurals? 

By William Camann, MD, anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and coauthor of Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth