Learning About Spinal and Epidural Anesthesia

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Needle inserted near spinal cord in seated person's back, with details of spinal injection site and epidural catheter placement.

What are spinal and epidural anesthesia?

Spinal and epidural anesthesia are ways to block pain from an entire region of the body.

A doctor or nurse with special training will give you numbing medicine. It's given near your spinal cord and the nerves around it.

You may get this medicine for a procedure on the lower part of your body. One example is a surgery on your lower belly, hips, or legs. It can also be used to help control pain after a procedure. Epidural anesthesia is often used in childbirth.

How are they done?

You may need to sit up and curl your body forward to round your low back. Or you'll lie on your side and curl your knees up to your chest.

First you'll get a shot to numb the skin on your back. Then the doctor or nurse will put a needle into the numbed area.

For spinal anesthesia, you'll get a shot of numbing medicine near your spinal cord. For epidural, you may get a single shot. But usually, a thin tube (catheter) is inserted through the needle into the space next to the spinal cord. Then the needle is removed and the tube stays in your back to supply the numbing medicine. Sometimes spinal and epidural anesthesia are combined.

You may also get other medicines for pain or to help you relax. You may get them through a tube in your vein, called an IV. They may make you feel sleepy.

What are the risks?

Serious problems aren't common. Some side effects may happen, such as a headache, nausea, or soreness at the injection site. Your heart or breathing can be affected by the medicine. In rare cases, nerve damage can cause long-term numbness, weakness, or pain.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.