What is a tunneled epidural catheter?

A tunneled epidural catheter is a very thin, flexible tube that is implanted into your spine (specifically, your epidural space) and tunneled under your skin. Through it, you can receive ongoing doses of medication that stops nerves in your spinal cord from sensing pain.

Tunneled epidural catheters are most often used in patients rehabilitating from cancer or in those with prolonged pain after major chest surgery.

How is a tunneled epidural catheter implanted?

First, you’ll be given an intravenous medication to relax you as well as an intravenous antibiotic. Then, you’ll lie on your stomach on an x-ray table.

The doctor will numb an area of your back with a local anesthetic. Then, guided by an x-ray, he or she will:

  • Insert a thin needle into your spine
  • Insert a catheter through the needle into the epidural space in your spine
  • Thread the catheter under your skin away from your spine

The end of the catheter will stick out from your skin and be taped to your back. Pain medication can be injected into the catheter, as needed.

What are the risks?

Tunneled epidural catheters are at risk for infection, especially in the epidural space in the spine and where they enter the body through the skin. They must be checked regularly.

Side effects from the implant procedure can include:

  • Numb or weak legs
  • Dizziness
  • Discomfort where the catheter was inserted

These effects can be managed, and they are only temporary.

What happens after the procedure?

You will lie in a recovery room for about 15 minutes for observation. Then, you will be admitted to the hospital for two to three days while your doctor regulates your medication.

You can resume your regular diet. Do not do any rigorous activity.

You will need to return every two weeks so a medical professional can check your catheter and change the dressing on your skin.

Is a tunneled epidural catheter right for you?

A tunneled epidural catheter may be right for you if you have long-term pain related to cancer or major surgery.

Talk to your physician about it. To schedule an evaluation at Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pain Management call 216.444.PAIN (7246) or 800.392.3353.