Epidurals, Etc.: Understanding the Role of Pain Medication in Labor

The expert OB/GYNs and midwives at Gainesville's All About Women discuss the available approaches to pain relief during labor

When it comes to pain medication in labor, most women instantly think of the epidural. And for good reason: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the majority of American women have an epidural at some point during their labor.

Despite how common the epidural is, there are other pain medications that your OB/GYN might recommend. The recommendation will depend on what stage of labor you're in and your personal desires about the role you want medication to play.

Continue reading to understand what medications are available, when and how they're used, and their benefits and limitations.


Opiates are systemic pain relievers, meaning they are absorbed by the blood stream. They do not completely remove pain, rather they "take the edge off" by lessening the body's pain response. Opiates are usually effective for a couple of hours.

There are several opiates that anesthesiologists frequently use:

An anesthesiologist will administer a small amount of one of these medications, either through an IV or a shot in the leg, arm or buttocks.

Opiates may be best for women who:

There are some limitations of opiates:

Epidural Blocks

Epidurals are a regional anesthetic, meaning they numb the section of your body below your chest, providing complete pain relief. An anesthesiologist administers an epidural by numbing a small area of your lower back near the spine and inserting a catheter. The catheter allows the slow flow of medication to your lower half.

An epidural takes about twenty minutes to administer and twenty more minutes to take effect. Once an epidural takes effect though, its medication can provide continuous relief for the rest of labor. There are a couple of types of epidurals, and include:

Epidurals are best for women who are ready for long lasting, complete pain relief.

There are some limitations of epidurals:

Spinal Blocks

Spinal blocks are another type of regional anesthetic that is given in a one-time dose through a shot into the spinal fluid in the lower back. Spinal blocks provide instant pain relief from the chest down.

Spinal blocks are often used if you:

Limitations of spinal blocks include:


Some hospitals offer a combination of a spinal block and an epidural block –called a spinal epidural. This involves only one procedure in which the catheter is placed for an epidural. The shot for the spinal block is given through the epidural catheter.

This procedure provides the immediate pain relief of a spinal block for up to two hours. When it begins to wear off, the anesthesiologist can begin the epidural through the catheter that's already in place.

Spinal-epidurals are ideal for women who are looking for as much pain relief as possible.

Spinal-epidurals are not for women who wish to labor out of the bed since they require you to stay in bed as soon as the procedure occurs. Spinal-epidurals aren't available everywhere.

Side Effects of Spinals and Epidurals

There are a few possible side effects that you should be aware of with regional anesthetics:

Talk To Your OB/GYN

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists asserts that a laboring woman should be given pain relief upon request. Knowing what pain medications are available and when you can and can't have them should help you better understand the recommendations of your care provider. Talk to your OB/GYN about which approach might work best for you ahead of time.

If you have questions about epidurals or other concerns related to pregnancy and birth, browse around our blog and knowledge center to learn more. And don't hesitate to contact OB/GYN physicians at Gainesville and Lake City's All About Women today.

Contact Us

View All General Women's Health Articles

Questions or comments? Contact us