Merck Manual

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    At the culmination of approximately 40 weeks of pregnancy, a woman will begin to experience labor. Labor signifies the impending delivery of the baby.

    To help alleviate the discomfort of childbirth, many women will elect to have a procedure called an epidural to numb the lower body. Prior to this procedure the woman may be given an IV infusion of fluids to help maintain blood pressure. A fetal monitor is also placed on the woman’s abdomen to monitor the baby’s heart rate. The woman is then positioned either on her side or sitting up with her back rounded. Once she is in position, the anesthesia provider locates the appropriate section of her spine, cleans the area, and injects a small amount of local anesthetic to numb the skin at the injection site. Regardless of her position, the woman must remain very still while the practitioner slowly and carefully inserts a long needle into her spinal column.

    The needle passes through the skin and between the vertebrae until it reaches the space just outside the membrane that surrounds the spinal nerves. This membrane is called the dura, hence the name, epidural. Once the needle is in position, the anesthesia provider will ensure that the needle did not pass into the dura or into a blood vessel. Next, a thin catheter is threaded through the needle into the epidural space. Medication is then administered through this catheter, numbing the lower portions of the woman’s body and reducing the discomfort of childbirth.

    As with any procedure, there are potential complications that should be discussed with the anesthesia provider prior to this procedure.

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