An epidural is an injection in the back to stop you feeling pain in part of your body.

This page covers epidural anaesthesia, a type of epidural commonly given for pain relief in childbirth and in some types of surgery.

When epidurals are used

Epidurals can be used:

  • during childbirth, including caesareans
  • during some types of surgery 
  • after some types of surgery

Steroid medication can also be given as an epidural injection to treat back or leg pain caused by sciatica or a slipped (prolapsed) disc.

Preparing for an epidural

If you have any concerns or questions about having an epidural, discuss these with your doctor. Let them know about any medication you’re taking.

You may be given specific advice about eating, drinking and medication before the epidural.

As you won’t be able to drive for 24 hours after having an epidural, you’ll need to arrange for someone to give you a lift home.

How an epidural is given

Epidurals are given by a specialist doctor called an anaesthetist.

You’re usually awake during an epidural, but for some types of surgery you may have it while under general anaesthetic.

  • A drip will be placed in your arm so you can be given fluids while you’re having the epidural.
  • You’ll be asked to sit down and lean forwards, or lie on your side with your knees drawn up.
  • You’ll be given an injection of local anaesthetic to numb the skin where the epidural is to be inserted.
  • A needle is used to insert a fine plastic tube called an epidural catheter between the bones of your back.
  • The needle is then removed, leaving just the catheter in your back.
  • You may feel mild discomfort when the epidural needle is positioned and the catheter is inserted.

The epidural can be inserted at different levels of your back depending on the area of the body that requires pain relief.

Pain relief drugs are then given through the catheter. These take about 20-30 minutes to take full effect.

Your chest, tummy and legs may feel numb while the epidural is being used, and your legs may not feel as strong as normal.

While the catheter remains in your back, it can be used to top up your pain relief drugs manually or using an automatic pump.

This can be for several hours (during childbirth) or for a few days (after major surgery).

Mobile epidurals, which use a lower dose of pain relief drugs, are sometimes used in childbirth, allowing you to walk around during labour.

Recovering from an epidural

When the epidural is stopped, the numbness usually lasts for a few hours before its effects begin to wear off.

While the drugs wear off, you’ll probably be advised to rest in a lying or sitting position until the feeling in your legs returns.

This can take a couple of hours, and you may feel a slight tingling sensation in your skin.

Tell the doctor or nurse if you feel any pain. They can give you medicines to help control it.

Do not drive, operate machinery or drink alcohol for 24 hours after having an epidural.

Risks and side effects of an epidural

Epidurals are usually safe, but there’s a small risk of side effects and complications, including:

  • low blood pressure, which can make you feel lightheaded or nauseous
  • temporary loss of bladder control
  • itchy skin
  • feeling sick
  • headaches
  • nerve damage

Read more about the side effects and complications of an epidural.