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During the course of your labour, you may ask for, or have recommended to you, an epidural. The information provided in this brochure will help you understand what this will mean for you and your baby.

What is an epidural?

An epidural is an injection of local anaesthetic through a fine plastic tube which has been placed near the nerves in your spine. These nerves carry pain messages from the uterus and birth canal to the brain. When the epidural is working, the pain of labour, or procedures associated with birthing, may be completely or partially relieved.

This procedure is performed by an anaesthetist. What are some of the reasons for having an epidural?

  • pain relief
  • high blood pressure
  • caesarean birth
  • heart or lung disorders
  • prolonged labour
  • twins
  • forceps or vacuum birth.

Common side effects

  • You may experience numbness in your legs and abdomen.
  • You may experience temporary weakness of the muscles of your legs.
  • Your blood pressure may fall. You may be required to have extra fluid by a drip, or medication, to return your blood pressure to normal.
  • The urge to pass urine and the ability to empty your bladder can be lost and you may need a urinary catheter.
  • As all people are different in build and stature, it may be difficult to insert the epidural needle. This is especially true if you are overweight, however, once in place, the epidural should be effective.
  • You may not obtain complete pain relief. Occasionally, the epidural may need to be removed if it is not working, and a new one inserted.
  • The epidural may slow down your labour and you may need an oxytocin (hormone) drip to regulate your contractions. The second stage of labour, when your cervix is fully dilated, may be longer. The epidural will not increase your chance of having a caesarean birth.
  • Back pain following the delivery of a baby is very common, even if you do not have an epidural. Having an epidural does not cause chronic back pain.

Less common side effects

  • You may experience a headache due to leakage of spinal fluid. This occurs in 1% of cases. To relieve this symptom, you will be required to lie flat for a period of time or the anaesthetist may perform a procedure known as a "blood patch".
  • In some instances the epidural may spread too high up your spinal cord. If this occurs, you may experience numbness in your hands. You may also experience some difficulty breathing. In very rare cases a general anaesthetic may required to assist your breathing until the epidural wears off.
  • With all invasive procedures there is a risk of infection. In very rare cases, an epidural may cause meningitis or a spinal abscess.
  • A very small number of people will suffer permanent nerve damage. This will result in a numb patch on your leg or foot, or muscle weakness causing you to limp. It occurs in one in 13 000 epidurals. Extremely rare cases of paralysis have occurred with epidurals. This is due to bleeding or an abscess near the spinal cord. It occurs in one in 250 000 epidurals.

How do epidurals affect my baby?

Epidurals have minimal effect on your baby. Your baby may become distressed if your blood pressure falls and it is not corrected quickly. Rarely, some drugs put in your epidural can also distress your baby.

Further Information

Please speak with your midwife or doctor if you have any queries or concerns. If you want more information, look up the “information for mothers” section of the Obstetric Anaesthetists Association at www.oaa-anaes.ac.uk.

© 2010 Mater Misericordiae Ltd. ACN 096 708 922.

Mater acknowledges consumer consultation in the development of this patient information.
Mater Doc Num: PI-CLN-430049
Last modified 08/8/2017.
Consumers were consulted in the development of this patient information.
Last consumer engagement date: 28/2/2014
For further translated health information, you can visit healthtranslations.vic.gov.au/ supported by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services that offers a range of patient information in multiple languages.
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