Ah, epidurals. The holy grail of pain relief, the magical shot with minimal side effects that makes bearing a child somehow not the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. At least, that’s what I’d always heard from my mom, who had one for all six of her kids, so it felt like a safe assumption. I knew on my way to the hospital with my firstborn son that I would ask for an epidural, but I had no idea that it would work a little too well—triggering a panic attack while I was in labor.
If I could go back, there is one thing I wish I knew before getting the epidural: your dose (and level of numbness) can be adjusted.
What does an epidural do?
As a quick refresher, an epidural “provides anesthesia that creates a band of numbness from your bellybutton to your upper legs,” according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists. An epidural allows you to feel pressure when it’s time to push without the pain. It’s inserted in your back using a tiny needle and a catheter, which is left in place to continue administering more medicine as needed.
After informing my OB-GYN pre-delivery that an epidural would be part of my birth plan with my first son, I arrived at the hospital in August 2017 for my induction at 39 weeks pregnant. About 12 hours later, I remember feeling a little confused. “When do I request an epidural?” I asked my mom. I was only dilated to 3 centimeters and had been feeling some contractions, but nothing the regular IV pain medications couldn’t handle. My mom answered, “If you’re asking that question, then you don’t need it yet.”
Fast-forward several hours later to my OB-GYN manually breaking my water—causing my contractions to suddenly intensify. My mom and my husband had both left the room to get lunch, but I didn’t need anyone’s advice this time: I knew I wanted the epidural, now! As a frustratingly calm labor and delivery nurse helped me sit still on the edge of the bed for the spinal injection, I gritted my teeth and prayed the anesthesia would kick in ASAP. The painful contractions I was experiencing combined with flared sciatica was miserable (and people not in pain, no matter how nice they were, were really starting to get on my nerves!).
I was past the point of breathing exercises and needed some serious pain relief.
After the anesthesiologist inserted the epidural, I laid back down and waited. Minutes later, it slowly became easier to breathe again. It was like the agony of the last few hours (and months of back pain before that) was slowly fading away, leaving me almost lightheaded with relief.
I was laughing, planning for my first post-birth meal and finally relaxing. Until I realized the epidural had done more than just eliminate pain—it had eliminated all feeling in my lower body.
I was completely numb from the top of my stomach to the soles of my feet. I couldn’t feel anything at all from the waist down and couldn’t move my legs or feet as hard as I tried. It felt like I was paralyzed, and it scared me.
My heart started racing so high it alerted the nurse, who called my doctor.
I told her I felt like I was having a panic attack because the feeling of being trapped in bed—and in my own body—completely caught me off guard.
I didn’t know this at the time, but the dosage of your epidural can be adjusted through the catheter that is left in your back.
The way it works is simple: a small amount of anesthetic is injected into the epidural space of the spine, which numbs the spinal nerves and blocks the pain signals. You will no longer feel pain, but a low dose will allow you to move your legs.
The anesthesiologist came back and lowered my dose to the point I could actually feel tingles in my legs and move them on my own again. When he lowered the dose, I was also able to feel my contractions again; luckily, nowhere near the level of pain they were before. The contractions just felt like slight pressure squeezing my abdomen, signaling when it was time to push.
Related: Some hospitals aren’t letting women push during birth when they need to—and that’s not OK
Having the feeling return to my legs was a complete game changer.
After just 15 minutes of pushing, my son Logan was finally born! Two years later, when I was in the hospital to have my second son Liam, things went so much smoother. I knew to ask for the dose to be lowered so I could still feel my legs, and it was so empowering to have that control and peace of mind in the delivery room.
If you are considering getting an epidural before your delivery, I highly recommend it. And if the dose is too high, causing you to feel anxious or claustrophobic, ask your anesthesiologist to lower the dose to a more manageable level. You deserve to have as much control over your birth experience as safely possible.
A version of this story was published January 20, 2022. It has been updated.