Many times, a group of nerves – called a plexus or ganglion – causes pain to an area of the body. This pain can be “turned off” by using a specific type of injection that blocks the pain signal from reaching the brain. This is called a nerve block.
Nerve blocks are used to treat chronic pain when medications or other treatments prove to be ineffective or cause negative side effects. They allow a damaged nerve proper time to heal, provide temporary pain relief, and can be used to identify a specific cause of pain. Oftentimes, your physician will perform a test block with a local anesthetic. If you have positive results and pain relief from the test block, your doctor will move forward with an injectable nerve block.
Why are Nerve Blocks Used?
Nerve blocks are used for a variety of purposes. Patients who suffer from acute or chronic pain may receive a nerve block injection for temporary pain relief. Since pain is such an individual experience, nerve blocks are also used to help physicians diagnose the source of pain by measuring the patient’s response to the injection. This is helpful to determine a treatment plan.
Other purposes for nerve blocks are:
- To predict the outcome of any given treatment. Prognostic nerve blocks are performed to determine if a more permanent treatment (surgery) would be more successful in treating pain.
- To avoid surgery, in some cases.
- To prevent additional pain from a procedure or surgery that can cause negative side effects, such as phantom limb pain.
Types of Nerve Blocks
Since nerve blocks can be used for a variety of purposes to help reduce, treat, and prevent pain, it is no surprise that there are many different types of nerve blocks.
The benefit of nerve blocks is that they can be used in almost every area of the body to treat pain. Because of this, there are different nerve block types. No area of pain should be treated equally. Here are few types of nerve blocks that are available and where they are used:
- Trigeminal nerve block – face
- Maxillary nerve block – upper jaw
- Cervical epidural/thoracic epidural neck and back
- Cervical paravertebral block – shoulder and upper neck
- Brachial plexus block – shoulder, arm, hand, wrist
- Celiac plexus block – abdomen
There are other common types of nerve blocks, including:
Sympathetic nerve block
This type of nerve block is performed to determine if there is any damage to the sympathetic nerve chain – a network of nerves that extends the length of the spine. These nerves are responsible for involuntary bodily functions like narrowing blood vessels.
Facet Joint Block
This nerve block is performed to determine whether facet joints are a source of pain. Facet joints are located along the spine and are responsible for helping the joints guide and restrict spine movement.
How are Nerve Blocks Performed?
Nerve block injections use imaging guidance – such as fluoroscopy or CT scans – to guide the needle into the injection site. This allows the physician to place the needle in the most accurate location for the injection to be most beneficial. The syringe will be filled with medication, depending on what the patient needs.
A small needle will be inserted through the skin and directed towards the injection site. A small amount of contrast material may be used to confirm needle placement in the appropriate location. The injection itself will be administered with a syringe much like one that would be used for a routine vaccination. The doctor will fill the syringe from a small vial of medication. The type of medication used depends on individual patient needs.
This is typically performed as an outpatient procedure and only take a few minutes to administer.
Your physician will position you on the table or surface to allow access to the site to be injected. Using imaging guidance, the doctor will identify where the needle needs to be placed. In some cases, more than one injected may be required, depending on the area of pain that needs to be covered. The medication will go into effect rather quickly, but the doctor will have you stay in the office to ensure there are no immediate and unexpected side effects.
Side Effects and Risks
Nerve blocks are safe, however, like any procedure and injection, there is always a risk involved. Typically, nerve blocks carry fewer side effects than other types of medication.
Some side effects include:
- Injection site soreness and tenderness
- Damage to nerves
- Electated blood sugar
- Horner’s Syndrome
Nerve blocks provide temporary relief from pain and the results can vary from patient to patient. Speak to your doctor about your options when it comes to relieving your pain so you can determine a course of action. Nerve blocks are among a variety of anesthetics used to treat pain caused by a group of nerves.