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When is an epidural used?

An epidural decreases pain in a specific area — in this case, the lower part of the body. Women often choose to have one. It’s also sometimes a medical necessity if there are complications, such as those resulting in a cesarean delivery (C-section).

An epidural takes about 10 minutes to place and an additional 10 to 15 minutes to work. It’s delivered through a tube via the spine.


The greatest benefit of an epidural is the potential for a painless delivery. While you may still feel contractions, the pain is decreased significantly. During a vaginal delivery, you’re still aware of the birth and can move around.

An epidural is also required in a cesarean delivery to ease pain from surgically removing a baby from the womb. General anesthesia is used in some cases as well, where the mother isn’t awake during the procedure.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)Trusted Source report a 72 percent increase in the number of cesarean deliveries from 1997 through 2008, which might also explain the enduring popularity of epidurals.

While some cesarean deliveries are elective, most are required if vaginal delivery can’t be accomplished. Vaginal birth after cesarean section is possible, but not for all women.


Some risk factors of an epidural include:

  • back pain and soreness
  • headaches
  • persistent bleeding (from puncture site)
  • fever
  • breathing difficulties
  • drop in blood pressure, which can slow down the baby’s heart rate

It’s important to note that, while such risks exist, they’re considered rare.

The fact that mothers can’t feel all of the elements of delivery with an epidural can also lead to a host of other problems, such as increased risk of tearing during vaginal delivery.

Risks with cesarean deliveries aren’t necessarily related to the epidural. Unlike vaginal births, these are surgeries, so recovery times are longer and there’s a risk of infection.

Cesarean deliveries have also been linked to greater riskTrusted Source of childhood chronic diseases (including type 1 diabetes, asthma, and obesity). More research is needed.

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