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An epidural is a type of anesthesia that is most commonly used to numb the intense pains of labor. During this procedure, an anesthetic is injected into the area surrounding the sac that contains the spinal cerebrospinal fluid. When this sac, known as the dura, is punctured and starts to leak, some patients can develop one of the side effects of epidurals, a moderate to intense headache. This is known as an epidural headache, and can be accompanied by other symptoms. Although these types of headaches will often go away in a short amount of time, a severe epidural headache may require another medical procedure known as a blood patch.
An epidural headache typically only occurs in a very small percentage of people who receive epidurals. Younger individuals are more generally more susceptible to these headaches, as are women. Pregnant woman especially are at a higher risk of getting epidural headaches.
An epidural headache may not always happen if the spinal fluid starts leaking, but it is estimated that more then half of patients to whom this happens develop a headache. In most cases, this will usually occur anywhere from a few hours to a week after receiving epidural anesthesia. In some rare cases, however, headaches have been reported a few weeks after the anesthesia.
The most common symptom of an epidural headache is, obviously, a headache. It is typically worse when standing and usually goes completely away as soon as the patient lies down. Severity of epidural headaches can vary. Some sufferers describe the pain as moderate, but the majority say that it is one of the worst headaches that they have ever experienced.
Besides the usual headache, patients can experience other symptoms as well. Along with pain in the head, there may also be an aching felt in the neck. Symptoms similar to those of a migraine are also common, including nausea, sensitivity to lights, or a ringing sound in the ears or other auditory problems.
Often times, an epidural headache will go away within a week or two. During this time, a patient should remain lying down flat. Pain can be controlled using over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, and some sufferers find that caffeine can relieve some of the pain.
Serious epidural headaches that don't dissipate on their own typically require a medical procedure commonly referred to as a blood patch. This is done by taking blood from a patient, which is then injected into the back, near where the spinal fluid is leaking. The blood will then start to clot and act as a plug for the hole from which the fluid is leaking.
Relief from the severe headache is sometimes felt almost immediately, but it can take up to 24 hours. A small number of patients may continue to experience an epidural headache. If this happens, the blood patch procedure may need to be repeated.