Spinal block for labor pain

When it comes to managing labor pain, some expecting moms prefer to deal with the pain of childbirth naturally, using breathing and relaxation techniques. Others decide from the start to use pain medication to help manage labor pain. One option for pain medication during labor is a spinal block (also called a spinal).

How it works

  • A spinal can be given during active labor or just before a c-section.
  • The woman is given an injection into her lower back, which numbs the lower body.
  • The medication blocks pain in the lower half of a woman's body while she is awake and alert.

How it's given

  • The spinal uses a much thinner needle to inject medication than the needle used for an epidural.
  • While you are sitting or lying on your side with your back curved outward, the health provider inserts the needle for the spinal into your lower back.
  • A small dose of medicine is given as a shot into the spinal fluid (fluid-filled space that surrounds the spinal nerves in your lower back).

How it affects you

  • A spinal block only needs to be given once and provides pain relief from the chest down.
  • The medication is usually given during active labor, so it's best for pain relief during delivery of the baby.
  • Good pain relief starts right away.


  • A smaller needle is used for injection into the lower back.
  • Pain relief starts right away.
  • You remain awake and alert.
  • The medication can also be used if the health provider uses instruments to help the baby out during vaginal delivery.
  • Sometimes a spinal is given along with an epidural. This provides you with immediate pain relief and the option of more medication if you need it.


  • While pain relief with a spinal starts quickly, it lasts only 1-2 hours.
  • It may provide uneven pain relief, affecting one side of the body more than the other.
  • Your blood pressure can drop during a spinal, which may slow your baby's heartbeat. To prevent this, you'll receive extra fluids through an intravenous (IV) tube. Lying on your side can also improve blood flow.
  • The medication can make it difficult for you to control or empty your bladder, so you may need a catheter (a small flexible tube placed in the body).
  • In very rare instances, you may get a bad headache. If not treated, this "spinal headache" may last for days.
  • You may feel some soreness from the spinal injection after delivery and it may lasts just a few days.
  • If too much medication is given, it can affect your chest muscles. This may temporarily make you feel like you're having trouble breathing. However, this is rare.

Changing your mind after natural labor
Labor pain affects each woman differently. Some women may have a mild discomfort and others may experience intense pain. If you try natural childbirth and during labor you begin thinking about using pain medication or anesthesia to cope with labor pain, know that it's okay to change your mind. Don't feel like you let your baby down or gave up. Only you know how strong the pain feels. It's okay to talk with your provider and do what you think is best.

April 2010

Most common questions

What is an epidural?

An epidural is the most popular and effective kind of pain relief for labor. You get a needle with a small tube attached placed in your lower back. Medicine goes through the tube while you're in labor. It numbs your lower body so you can't feel the pain from your contractions. The medicine doesn't make you go to sleep, so you can be wide awake when your baby is born!

What is fetal-scalp blood sampling?

Fetal-scalp blood sampling is a quick test your health care provider can use to check if your baby is getting enough oxygen during labor.

During labor, your cervix dilates (opens) to let your baby out. Your cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the vagina. In order to have fetal-scalp blood sampling, your cervix must be dilated enough that your provider can reach your baby’s head.

The test may remind you of a pelvic exam. It takes about 5 minutes. You lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. Your provider places a plastic cone in the vagina that fits up against the baby’s head. Your provider pricks your baby’s scalp and takes a small amount of blood. The blood is tested, and results are ready in a few minutes.

You may feel some pressure during the test, but it shouldn’t hurt. Your baby may have some bruising or bleeding at the spot where he’s pricked.

If you have an infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, your provider may not recommend fetal blood sampling. This is because you can pass these infections to your baby through the spot where he’s pricked.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb).

Your body also makes oxytocin during breastfeeding. Oxytocin helps your uterus shrink back to its original size after giving birth.

If labor is slow to start or your contractions stall, your health care provider may give you a medicine called Pitocin. Pitocin acts like oxytocin and can help start contractions or make them stronger.

What is Pitocin?

Pitocin is a medicine that acts like oxytocin, a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb). Health care providers often use Pitocin to:

  • Help induce labor
  • Help labor move along if your contractions slow down, or if they aren’t strong enough

You may start having labor contractions shortly after you get Pitocin. It can make your contractions very strong and lower your baby's heart rate. Your provider carefully monitors your baby's heart rate for changes and adjusts the amount of Pitocin you get, if needed.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).