The doctor injects medicine just outside of the sac of fluid around your spinal cord. This is called the epidural space.
The medicine numbs, or blocks feeling in a certain part of your body so that you cannot feel pain. The medicine begins to take effect in about 10 to 20 minutes. It works well for longer procedures. Women often have an epidural during childbirth.
A small tube (catheter) is often left in place. You can receive more medicine through the catheter to help control your pain during or after your procedure.
For a spinal:
The doctor injects medicine into the fluid in your spinal cord. This is usually done only once, so you will not need to have a catheter placed.
The medicine begins to take effect right away. It works well for shorter and simpler procedures.
Your pulse, blood pressure and oxygen level in your blood are checked during the procedure. After the procedure, you will have a bandage where the needle was inserted.
Why the Procedure Is Performed
Spinal and epidural anesthesia have fewer side effects and risks than general anesthesia (asleep and pain-free). Patients usually recover their senses much faster. Sometimes, they have to wait for the anesthetic to wear off so they can walk.
Spinal anesthesia is often used for genital, urinary tract, or lower body procedures.
Epidural anesthesia is often used during labor and delivery, and surgery in the pelvis and legs.
Epidural and spinal anesthesia are often used when:
The procedure or labor is too painful without any pain medicine.
The procedure is in the belly, legs, or feet.
Your body can remain in a comfortable position during your procedure.
You want fewer systemic side effects and a shorter recovery than you would have from general anesthesia.
Spinal and epidural anesthesia are generally safe. Ask your doctor about these possible complications:
Sherwood ER, Williams CG, Prough DS. Anesthesiology principles, pain management, and conscious sedation. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 16.
Jennifer Sobol, DO, Urologist at the Michigan Institute of Urology, West Bloomfield, MI. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.