Epidural anaesthesia, often referred to as "an epidural", is an injection in the back that numbs the nerves and stops you feeling pain.

Areas that can be numbed by an epidural include the:

  • chest
  • abdomen
  • pelvic area
  • legs

How an epidural works

Anaesthetic medicine is injected into an area of the spine known as the epidural space.

The anaesthetic works by numbing pain nerves as they enter the spinal cord.

The extent of the numbness will depend on the type of drug used, and the amount injected. Once the medication has worn off, feeling in the affected areas will return.

Read more about how an epidural is performed.

When is an epidural used?

An epidural can be used to provide pain relief in situations including:

  • during childbirth
  • during an operation, instead of a general anaesthetic after surgery that has been carried out under general anaesthetic

Read more about why an epidural is used.

This topic focuses mainly on having an epidural during labour and childbirth.


Epidurals have been routinely used for many years and are widely accepted as an effective method of pain relief after surgery, and during labour and childbirth.

However, as with many medical procedures, there are some associated risks that, although small, you should be aware of before deciding whether to have an epidural. Two possible risks include:

  • puncture of the dura – the toughest, outer layer surrounding the spinal cord and brain; the risk of the dura being punctured is about one in 100
  • nerve damage – which occurs only very rarely

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

Pain relief in labour

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

Page last reviewed: 02/02/2015

Next review due: 02/02/2017