What you need to know about an epidural

What is an epidural?

Epidurals are used for pain control. Your health care team will talk with you about why you need an epidural.

Pain medicine goes into your body through a small tube placed in your back. The tube is called a catheter, and it's connected to a small pump that gives you a constant amount of pain medicine.

After the tube is placed, you will be able to lie on your back, turn, walk, and do other things your doctor says you can do.

Who might receive an epidural?

Pregnant women in labor may have an epidural to help control their pain without harming the baby. It also may be used for people before, during, or after surgery. People with cancer or an injury such as a broken rib may have an epidural to help control their pain.

How is the tube put in my back?

You will either lie on your side or sit up while the doctor puts the tube in your back.

  • Your back will be washed with a skin cleanser that might feel cold.
  • The doctor will put medicine through a small needle to numb your back. This may sting a little. 
  • Then, a tube is placed through a needle into your back (called the epidural space). 
  • The needle is taken out, and the tube stays in your back. 
  • The tube is connected to tubing that is taped to your back and over your shoulder. 
  • The other end of the tubing is attached to the pump that controls the medicine. 

How long will the epidural stay in?

The tube will stay in your back until your pain is under control and you can take pain pills. Sometimes this can be up to seven days. If you are pregnant, the tube will be taken out after the baby is born. 

How is the epidural removed?

A member of the Pain Service team will take it out before you leave the hospital. It is usually not painful to take the tube out. The tape will be taken off first and may pull on your skin a little. Then the tube is pulled out and the site is left open to air.

What are the possible side effects of having an epidural?

  • You may have some numbness or tingling in your back and legs.
  • It may be hard to walk or move your legs for a while.
  • You may have some itching or feel sick to your stomach.
  • You may be constipated or have a hard time emptying your bladder (peeing). You may need a catheter (tube) placed in your bladder to help urine drain.
  • You may feel sleepy.
  • Your breathing might become slower.

Get help

A nurse can help you if:

  • Your tubing comes loose from your back or from the pump.
  • The tube breaks or leaks.
  • You have itching or pain that is not controlled.
  • You try to get up and walk for the first time.
  • You get too sleepy or seem confused. Your family or friends should tell your nurse right away.
  • You feel sick to your stomach.
  • You have a bad headache after the tube is taken out.
Last reviewed: 
May 2017

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