An epidural anaesthetic can be used for most people, usually giving a safe and effective form of pain relief both during and after an operation or procedure.

What is an epidural anaesthetic?

An epidural anaesthetic (or epidural) involves injecting local anaesthetics and other painkillers into an area called the epidural space, near your spinal cord. This numbs your nerves to give pain relief in certain areas of your body. An epidural can be used either on its own while you are awake, or together with sedation or a general anaesthetic. An epidural can also be used after an operation or procedure to give effective pain relief.

The epidural can be maintained by giving extra doses or by giving a continuous low dose.

How is an epidural given?

An epidural being givenYour anaesthetist will insert an epidural catheter using a needle (see figure 1). They will inject a small amount of anaesthetic through the catheter to check the position. Once they have completed this check, they will give more of the anaesthetic until the epidural is working properly.

The effect of the epidural can be varied by changing the type and amount of medication given.

What complications can happen?

  • Failure of the epidural
  • Low blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Respiratory depression
  • Itching
  • Difficulty passing urine
  • Leg weakness
  • Backache
  • Seizures caused by the local anaesthetics
  • Unexpected high block
  • Infection around your spine
  • Cardiovascular collapse
  • Blood clot around your spine
  • Damage to nerves
  • Paralysis or death


Author: Dr Iain Moppett DM MRCP FRCA

Illustrations: Medical Illustration Copyright © Nucleus Medical Art. All rights reserved.

This document is intended for information purposes only and should not replace advice that your relevant health professional would give you.

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Last updated: July 2017

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