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Brown: Atlas of Regional Anesthesia, 3rd ed., Copyright © 2006 Saunders, An Imprint of Elsevier
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Chapter 48 – Spinal Block


Spinal anesthesia is unparalleled in the way a small mass of drug, virtually devoid of systemic pharmacologic effect, can produce profound, reproducible surgical anesthesia. Furthermore, by altering the small mass of drug, different types of spinal anesthesia can be produced. Low spinal anesthesia, a block below T10, carries a different physiologic impact than does a block performed to produce higher spinal anesthesia (greater than T5). The block is unexcelled for lower abdominal or lower extremity surgical procedures. However, for operations in the mid to upper abdomen, “light” general anesthesia may have to supplement the spinal block because stimulation of the diaphragm during upper abdominal procedures often causes some discomfort. This area is difficult to block completely through high spinal anesthesia because to do so requires blockade of the phrenic nerve.

Patient Selection.

Patient selection for spinal anesthesia often places too much emphasis on a side effect of the technique (i.e., spinal headache) than on the applicability of the technique in a given patient. It is clear that the incidence of spinal headache increases with decreasing age and female sex; however, with proper technique and selection of needle size and tip configuration, the incidence of headache should not preclude the use of spinal anesthesia in young, healthy patients if the block has advantages over epidural anesthesia. Almost any patient who is to have a lower extremity operation is a candidate for spinal anesthesia, as are most patients scheduled for lower abdominal surgery, such as inguinal herniorrhaphy and gynecologic, urologic, and obstetric procedures.

Pharmacologic Choice.

In the United States, three local anesthetics are commonly used to produce spinal anesthesia: lidocaine, tetracaine, and bupivacaine. Lidocaine is a short- to intermediate-acting spinal drug; tetracaine and bupivacaine provide an intermediate- to long-acting block. Lidocaine, without epinephrine, is often chosen for procedures that can be completed in 1 hour or less. It is likely that the lidocaine mixture most commonly used is still a 5% solution in 7.5% dextrose, although increasingly anesthesiologists are using 1.5% to 2% concentrations of lidocaine without dextrose as an alternative. When epinephrine (0.2 mg) is added to lidocaine, the useful length of clinical anesthesia in the lower abdomen and lower extremities is approximately 90 minutes. Tetracaine is packaged as niphanoid crystals (20 mg) and as a 1% solution (2 mL total). When dextrose is added to make tetracaine hyperbaric, the drug generally produces effective clinical anesthesia for procedures of up to 1.5 to 2 hours in the plain form, up to 2 to 3 hours when epinephrine (0.2 mg) is added, and up to 5 hours for lower extremity procedures when phenylephrine (5 mg) is added as a vasoconstrictor. Bupivacaine spinal anesthesia is commonly carried out with 0.5% or 0.75% solution, either plain or in 8.25% dextrose. It is my impression that the clinical difference between 0.5% tetracaine and 0.75% bupivacaine as hyperbaric solutions is minimal. Bupivacaine is appropriate for procedures lasting up to 2 to 3 hours.

In addition to the hyperbaric technique, local anesthetics can be mixed to produce hypobaric spinal anesthesia. A common method of formulating a hypobaric solution is to mix tetracaine in a 0.1% to 0.33% solution with sterile water. It has also become evident that lidocaine can be mixed to provide useful hypobaric spinal anesthesia. This drug is diluted from a 2% solution with sterile water to make a 0.5% solution, using a total of 30 to 40 mg.

Many anesthesiologists avoid vasoconstrictors for fear of somehow increasing the risk during spinal anesthesia. These anesthesiologists believe that phenylephrine or epinephrine has such potent vasoconstrictive action that it puts the blood supply of the spinal cord at risk. There are no human data to support this theory. In fact, because most local anesthetics are vasodilators, addition of these vasoconstrictors does little more than maintain spinal cord blood flow at a basal level. Commonly used doses of these vasoconstrictors are 0.2 to 0.3 mg of epinephrine and 5 mg of phenylephrine added to the spinal anesthetic.

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