Peripheral nerve blocks: Regional anesthesia

What is a nerve block?

The anesthesia doctor will use an ultrasound to inject medicine near your nerves. It will numb the part of your body that needs surgery for up to 24 hours after surgery. In a few cases this can last longer. The nerve block will help control your pain after surgery.

How is a nerve block different from general anesthesia?

A nerve block lowers pain in an exact part of your body. General anesthesia makes a person unconscious. Nerve blocks do not have many of the side effects of general anesthesia, such as nausea, vomiting, and tiredness. So, people feel better faster after a surgery that uses a nerve block.

If I choose a peripheral nerve block, will I be awake for surgery?

You may be awake, or you may be given medicine that will help you relax and may make you feel tired. You will not see or feel the surgery. Your anesthesia doctor will look at your medical records and talk with you about your sedation choices.

Can I have both a nerve block and general anesthesia?

You will get medicines to help you relax and sleep as needed. Your anesthesia doctor will decide what is safe.

Types of nerve blocks

We use two types of nerve blocks:

  1. Single-shot, a one time injection
    • This will give you up to 24 hours of pain control after your surgery.
  2. Continuous catheters

What if I need pain control for more than 24 hours after surgery?

You will be given pain pills.

You may get a nerve catheter for long-term pain relief. For some orthopedic (bone) surgeries, the catheter will stay in for two to three days. Your doctors will talk with you about your choices the day of your surgery.

How is the nerve block done?

Peripheral nerve blocks tend to be done just before your surgery in a private room. The anesthesia doctor will:

  1. Clean your skin
  2. Put a needle into your skin and inject medicine to numb the area 
  3. Use ultrasound guidance to put in a needle near your nerve
    • Sometimes a stimulating needle is used to help find your nerves. This needle sends a signal into your tissue below the skin to help pinpoint the exact nerve. The signal will cause a painless muscle twitch and can cause a tingling feeling.
  4. Inject the medicine around the nerve.

What will I feel after the nerve block starts working?

In the part of your body that has the nerve block, you may have short-term:

  • Numbness
  • Heaviness
  • Weakness
  • Loss of muscle control

Always talk with your doctor or nurse before you start to use your arm or leg. Also, protect your arm or leg if it feels numb from the nerve block.

What are the benefits of nerve blocks?

  • Lessens your need for oral narcotic pain medicines. This lessens the side effects from these medicines.
  • Lessens your nausea and vomiting after surgery.
  • Shortens how long you have to stay in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU)
  • Gives you better pain relief right away after surgery.
  • Lessens the amount of general anesthesia you need during surgery. This helps you wake up faster.

What are the risks and side effects?

Like any medical procedure, there are risks. You will be closely montitored by doctors and nurses.

Your anesthesia doctor will talk with you about risks of a nerve block the day of your surgery. Less than 2 out of 10,000 people have permanent nerve injury.

Tell you doctor or nurse if you have any feelings that are not normal during the nerve block, such as:

  • Sudden pain down your arm or leg
  • A change in your hearing
  • A change in your eyesight
  • A change in your sense of taste
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle spasms
  • A change in your breathing
Last reviewed: 
August 2018

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