If there’s one thing the movies and television get right about giving birth, it’s that it’s no walk in the park!
Fortunately, modern medicine has several options to keep birthing parents comfortable. Some types of pain relief during labor and delivery include nitrous oxide and epidural anesthesia, the latter of which are so well known most women ask for them by name.
Labor can last a long time, so many parents want to know how long an epidural will last. The short answer is that pain medication administered by epidural will last as long as you (and your doctor) need it to. This is because an epidural makes it easy to top off your medication in order to keep you comfy while you’re in labor.
After the epidural is stopped, you might feel numb or woozy for a few hours before the medicine starts to wear off. This means you may:
- have to remain sitting or lying down
- not have much feeling in your legs
- feel like your legs are wobbly or weak
When the epidural starts to wear off you might feel tingling in your legs, like a pins-and-needles feeling. You might also start to have pain again. Tell your doctor right away if you’re uncomfortable.
An epidural can last for hours during labor and after you’ve had your baby. This is a good thing for several reasons:
- It lets you rest comfortably for a bit if you have a long labor.
- It helps control pain and discomfort.
- If you have a cesarean delivery, commonly known as a C-section, an epidural lets you stay awake to meet your baby.
- If you need an episiotomy or stitches down there (in the perineum) after delivery, the epidural numbs the area so you won’t feel a thing.
- An epidural will keep you comfortable right after delivery or a C-section so you can hold your baby before you both fall fast asleep.
An epidural is a kind of procedure, not a drug. Epidurals are the mode of transmission to help get pain medication exactly where you need it, and fast.
Epidurals are used for:
- labor and childbirth
- some types of surgeries
- after some kinds of surgeries
- back pain treatment
This procedure is also called an epidural block, a spinal nerve block, and sometimes, a spinal epidural. This is because that’s exactly where an epidural is placed — in your back along your spine or backbone.
In an epidural, your doctor might give you pain-blocking medications that numb your nerves. This means that you can’t feel much at all from your waist or tummy down. But your stomach muscles still work, so you can still push and deliver your baby safely.
The two main kinds of drugs that you’ll get in an epidural are:
- Analgesics: lessen pain without numbing your skin or body
- Anesthetics: block pain by numbing all feeling in a part of your body
An epidural is usually given by an anesthesiologist, a doctor who specializes in numbing pain. Your OB-GYN can also give you an epidural.
Many parents swear they don’t remember the pain of labor and birth the minute they lay eyes on their new bundle of joy. This might be because most of them chose to have an epidural while giving birth! Almost 71 percent of pregnant patients opt for an epidural.
You can get an epidural at almost any time once you and your doctor know that you’re truly in labor and the baby is coming one way or another. You may wish to get an epidural the minute you know you’re in active labor or wait for a little while.
One of the only times your doctor might not approve an epidural is if you’re in the late stages of labor when you’re fully dilated and the baby is coming. Getting an epidural at this stage of labor might interrupt your pushing.
Or, if you have serious complications and need an emergency C-section, there may not be time for you to have an epidural. You might have to be completely asleep for the surgery.
Here’s what to expect when you get an epidural:
- You’ll normally be awake during an epidural.
- Your doctor or a nurse will help you sit on a bed or chair and lean forward. Or you may lie on your side with your knees curled up to your chest — or as close as you can get while pregnant!
- The area for the epidural — the center of your lower back — will be cleaned with a swab and some rubbing alcohol.
- Your doctor will numb the area around the epidural site with a few tiny injections into the skin. This helps to keep you more comfortable during the procedure.
- A needle is used to put a very thin tube or catheter into your back until it’s just near your spinal nerves.
- The needle is taken out so you just have the epidural in your back.
- Your doctor will push numbing and pain medications into the epidural so that they can act quickly.
- You might be given a small dose of medication first to see how you feel.
- The epidural is right next to the nerves that send pain messages from your lower body to your brain. You should feel more comfortable within minutes.
- How fast an epidural starts working depends on the kind of drugs your doctor decides are right for you.
- An epidural takes about 20 to 30 minutes to reach full effect.
- Your doctor will give you more medications through the epidural if you need them.
Most pregnant women can safely get an epidural once they’re in labor. You might not be able to get one if you:
- have an infection in your lower back
- have a serious blood infection
- have problems with blood clotting
- are taking blood-thinning medications
- have severe back problems
- have had lower back surgery
Epidurals are common and normally very safe. During the procedure, you’ll have a whole medical team around you checking your blood pressure and other vitals constantly. They’ll be ready to give you fluids and oxygen if you need it.
However, like with other kinds of medications and procedures, getting an epidural has a very low risk of complications and side effects, which include:
- low blood pressure
- soreness at the site
- itchy skin
- bleeding at the site
- nerve damage
These side effects are usually temporary and go away on their own.
An epidural brings sweet relief, but you may have to grit your teeth a tiny bit longer because it can pinch going in.
You’ll probably feel the prick of the injection to numb your lower back area first. Then if the area around the epidural site is numb enough, you may feel a bit of pressure as the epidural slides into your back, ready to deliver medication.
How you feel right after getting an epidural depends on the kind of drugs and dosage your doctor gives you. You might only need numbing medication, which means that you may feel your legs and lower body getting a bit weak and numb.
Or your doctor may also give you pain medications and you’ll feel yourself relax. You’ll still be able to move your upper body and push your baby out. If you’re having a C-section, your doctor may give you more of both numbing and pain medications. This means you’ll likely be wide awake but not feel anything almost from your chest down.
Talk to your doctor about an epidural and other types of pain relief before your delivery date. Knowing your preference for pain relief should be part of your birth plan. While labor almost never goes according to plan, it’s still important to have a plan.
If you choose to get an epidural, know that your doctor will give you enough epidural medications to help you feel comfortable until after you’ve delivered your baby. The medication will take a few hours to wear off, and you’ll gradually regain feeling in the lower half of your body.
Tell your doctor right away if you’re feeling pain or are uncomfortable during or after your baby’s delivery. Childbirth is no easy feat, but with the right mindset and resources at your disposal, you’ll be on the other side of it, enjoying your baby in no time.