What is an Epidural?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on December 07, 2020

You may have heard of the epidural -- the pain-relieving shot that some pregnant women get when they’re giving birth. But it has other uses, too.

It’s an injection that goes into your “epidural space,” which is right outside of the membrane that protects your spinal cord. Doctors use epidural injections to relieve pain during and after surgery, as well as managing chronic pain.

This procedure isn’t right for every case. But if it’s an option, it requires a lower dose of medicine and as a result has fewer side effects. Epidurals may even give you longer-lasting pain relief while helping you stay more alert and mobile.

Epidural Nerve Blocks

This one of the most common uses of an epidural. It’s a type of anesthesia that doctors may give you during surgery to numb your spinal nerves and prevent pain signals from traveling to your brain. It usually begins to work in only 10 to 20 minutes.

You’d get a nerve block through a small, flexible tube, called a catheter, that goes near your spine at the small of your back and delivers the medicine nonstop, so you feel no pain during your surgery.

An epidural targets the nerves that carry pain signals. So you’re still able to feel touch and pressure. In fact, even though you will not feel pain in the lower portion of your body, you may still be able to walk around with some help. For these reasons, doctors usually recommend the use of an epidural nerve block when a woman chooses to get anesthesia during childbirth.

Side effects include a drop in blood pressure, trouble urinating, and headache. Rare complications include bleeding in the epidural space, nerve damage, and infection.

Epidural Injections

Some epidural injections are done with different medications, including steroids, to reduce pain and inflammation in your back, neck, arms, or legs.

Your doctor will use an X-ray with a special dye to insert the needle in the right spot. They will choose a location along your spine from the bottom of your neck to your tailbone that is closest to the nerve causing your pain.

Conditions that can be treated by an epidural injection include:

The procedure can take as little as 15 minutes and the numbing part of the shot may start to work fairly quickly. (The steroid part, which lasts longer, should start to work in 2 to 5 days.) The amount of time your pain relief lasts is different for each person. This type of injection doesn’t always bring pain relief. But if it does, the benefits can last up to a few months.

Doctors may also use epidural injections to find the source of your pain. In this case, the injection will target a specific nerve. If it helps your pain, your doctor will know they've found the right nerve.

A common side effect is that you may feel more pain until the medicine begins to work. Rarer side effects include bleeding, temporary numbness or weakness, infection, headache, or nerve damage.

Who Shouldn’t Get an Epidural?

There are a number of conditions that may make it risky for you get an epidural:

Depending on your situation, your doctor might look for another type of pain relief for you, or you might need to wait until a better time for the procedure.

Show Sources


Nemours KidsHealth: “Epidurals.”

UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy: “Epidural.”

PubMed Health: “Pregnancy and birth: Epidurals and painkillers for labor pain relief.”

Mayo Clinic: “Anesthesiology.”

Medscape: “Epidural Nerve Block.”

Columbia Neurosurgeons: “Epidural Steroid Injection.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine, Blaustein Pain Treatment Center: “Epidural Steroid Injections.”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Spinal Injections.”

Ohio Health: “Epidural Injection.”

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