When Should You Ask For An Epidural During Labor?

While many people associate an epidural specifically with childbirth, it's used for a variety of different purposes whenever it's necessary to anesthetize a part of the body, as per the Cleveland Clinic. It works by interrupting the nerve signals traveling from the brain through the spinal cord and onto other areas of the body, blocking an individual from feeling pain in a given area. A specially trained professional, usually an anesthesiologist, carries out the procedure by inserting a needle filled with the anesthetic into one of the spaces surrounding the spinal cord. Depending on the reason for the epidural, the medication will either be delivered once or set up to provide a continuous or on-demand flow.

When an epidural is used for labor and childbirth purposes, the numbing and pain relief is located in a region spanning from the belly button down through the thighs, explains the American Society of Anesthesiologists. It isn't strong enough to prevent an individual from feeling the necessary pressure to push out the baby but is designed to remove any pain associated with the process. In this case, the epidural is supplied continuously through a catheter that is inserted in the lower back, allowing the birthing individual to enjoy pain relief as long as is necessary.

If you're considering getting an epidural for your upcoming birth, you may be wondering how long you should hold out before requesting one.

An epidural can be administered at various points during labor

The good news is that you don't need to worry about getting to the hospital and requesting an epidural right at the beginning of labor. WebMD states that an anesthesiologist can administer the drug at any given time during the course of labor, as long as you don't wait until the last minute before you push that baby out (an epidural takes about a quarter of an hour to kick in, after all). This relatively large window of time allows you the opportunity to decide if getting an epidural is necessary for your own comfort as you move through labor.

If the epidural is administered with enough time in advance, the only condition is that you prevent yourself from making any movements while the needle is inserted. To carry out the procedure, the anesthesiologist will first request that you either sit on the bed or lay on your side, explains Johns Hopkins Medicine. They will apply a topical numbing cream to prevent pain and discomfort when they insert the needle. The final step is to thread the catheter into the space where the needle entered and let the medication flow. While you shouldn't feel any pain, the initial flow of the anesthetic may cause some stinging.

Benefits and risks of an epidural

As with any medical procedure, there are benefits and risks that come along with opting for an epidural during labor. First and foremost, an epidural is considered safe and effective when it comes to blocking the pain associated with childbirth, as per Medical News Today. And although it restricts movement from the waist down, an individual continues to retain full use of their upper body. It's also important to note that in the case of an emergency C-section, having an epidural in place prevents the need for general anesthesia during the surgery, essentially allowing the birthing person to stay awake the entire time and giving them the opportunity to partake in the birth of their baby.

All good things aside, there are some risks associated with the procedure that you should be aware of ahead of time. Epidurals can cause some unpleasant side effects, including itchiness, nausea and vomiting, problems urinating, and localized pain in the area where the catheter was inserted, points out Healthline. In rare cases, some people have reported nerve damage, seizures, and infections. There is also some evidence that an epidural prolongs labor, which can lead to complications and the subsequent need for an emergency C-section.

Ultimately, you'll want to discuss the benefits and risks with your healthcare provider in order to make an informed decision about how you want to give birth when the time comes.