Epidural anaesthesia - What it is used for 

When an epidural is used  

An epidural is a type of local anaesthetic. It can be used to completely block pain while you are awake.

This has the advantage of allowing you to avoid the common side effects of general anaesthetic, such as feeling sick and dizzy. In addition, you will avoid the rare, but potentially serious, complications of a general anaesthetic.

Epidural anaesthesia can be used to numb sensation and provide pain relief in a number of situations including:

Epidurals are most commonly associated with being used to reduce pain and discomfort during labour and childbirth. This topic focuses mainly on this use of epidural anaesthesia.

Labour and childbirth

Some women decide to have an epidural during labour and childbirth. Your midwife will be able to advise you about having an epidural and whether they think it is necessary. However, remember that the final decision will be yours.

An epidural may be recommended to help relieve pain during:

  • a particularly painful, complicated or prolonged labour
  • the delivery of twins or triplets
  • caesarean section delivery if an epidural was sited during labour
  • an assisted delivery – where either forceps or a suction cap (ventouse) is attached to the baby's head to help with the delivery

Read more about pain relief during labour.

Mobile epidurals

Mobile epidurals, also known as walking epidurals, are low-dose epidurals that may be used during labour. A smaller amount of local anaesthetic is used in combination with other painkilling medication.

As your nerve sensations will not be completely blocked, a mobile epidural provides pain relief without as much of the numbness or heavy-legged feeling that is experienced during a full epidural.

Another advantage of having a walking epidural is that you will be able to feel the contractions and the need to push during the final stages of labour.

As you will still have some sensation in your legs, you will also be able to move around if you need to, although it is not always recommended.

Why epidurals might not be used

In rare cases, an epidural is not recommended. For example, it may not be suitable if you:

  • are allergic to local anaesthetics
  • you are taking medication to thin your blood, such as warfarin
  • have a blood-clotting abnormality that increases your risk of bleeding
  • have previously had back surgery, or you have other problems with your back
  • have a spinal deformity or severe arthritis in your spine
  • have a neurological condition that affects your nervous system, such as spina bifida

Your anaesthetist will be able to provide you with more information and discuss the potential risks in these situations.

Page last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015

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Pain relief in labour

Techniques to help you cope including relaxation, gas and air, a birthing pool or epidural

Caesarean section

A caesarian section is an operation to deliver a baby. One in four babies in the UK are born this way