An epidural delivers continuous pain relief to the lower part of your body while allowing you to remain fully conscious. It decreases sensation but doesn’t result in a total lack of feeling.
Medication is delivered through a catheter – a very thin, flexible, hollow tube – that’s inserted into the epidural space just outside the membrane that surrounds your spinal cord and spinal fluid. An epidural is the most commonly used method of pain relief for labor in the United States.
In the past, many practitioners wanted a woman to be in active labor before starting an epidural due to a concern that it might slow down her contractions. These days, most caregivers will allow you to start an epidural whenever you ask for it.
Studies have shown that starting an epidural in early labor (compared with later in labor) is not more likely to prolong labor or lead to a c-section or other interventions such as a forceps delivery. (However, as we note later, having an epidural at all does increase your risk of a vacuum extraction or forceps delivery.)
If you arrive at the hospital before you’re in active labor and you know you’re going to want an epidural, you can ask the anesthesiologist to place the catheter as soon as you’re settled in your bed. Then you can wait to start the medication when your labor becomes active.
Or you can wait and see how you feel. It’s never too late to get an epidural unless the baby’s head is crowning. The only risk to waiting is that the anesthesiologist may be busy and you may have to wait a bit longer for her to arrive once you decide you want the pain medication