Epidural anaesthesia, often referred to as "an epidural", is an injection in the lower 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

During an epidural, an anaesthetist uses a needle to locate an area of the spine known as the epidural space. An anaesthetist is a doctor specially trained to provide pain relief during surgical procedures.

The anaesthetic works by numbing pain nerves as they enter the spine. 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 a number of different situations including:

  • during natural childbirth
  • during an operation, instead of a general anaesthetic (where you are unconscious during the operation)
  • 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 providing 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 dura is the thickest, outermost layer that surrounds 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 complications of an epidural.


Although epidurals are commonly used to provide pain relief, they are not always effective at reducing labour pain. The Obstetric Anaesthetists Association estimate that one in eight women who have an epidural during labour need to use additional methods of pain relief.

Read more about the side effects of an epidural.

Watch this...

A consultant midwife explains the choices available to women during labour, including pain relief, relaxation and birthing positions

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Pain relief in labour

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

Page last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015