Regional anesthesia is a targeted type of anesthesia. It involves injecting numbing medicine around nerves that provide sensation to specific regions or parts of your body (e.g., arm, leg, foot) and can be used instead of general anesthesia or in addition to general anesthesia as a way to control pain after surgery. Anesthesiologists can perform these procedures before surgery to prevent pain, or they can provide regional anesthesia as a “rescue” technique to relieve pain after surgery. Types of regional anesthesia procedures include spinal, epidural or peripheral nerve block. Depending on the type of numbing medicine (local anesthetic) used, a nerve block can last for a few hours or up to a whole day. For more painful surgeries, anesthesiologists can insert a tiny tube (also known as a “catheter”) that can continuously bathe the nerves in numbing medicine for an additional 2-3 days and sometimes longer when necessary.
There are many advantages to regional anesthesia. Because you will have decreased sensation, you need to take less opioid (narcotic) pain medicines even though you will commonly have these medications prescribed to you and you will still be allowed to take them as needed. Patients who receive regional anesthesia also have less nausea, recover more quickly immediately after surgery, and sleep better overnight compared to patients who do not have regional anesthesia.
Even if you choose regional anesthesia instead of general anesthesia, you don’t have to be “awake” during surgery. Anesthesiologists often combine regional anesthesia with either intravenous sedation or general anesthesia, both of which can allow you to “sleep” during surgery. You should discuss your preferences with your anesthesiologist prior to surgery.
There are always possible side effects and risks associated with performing any procedure. Fortunately, serious complications associated with regional anesthesia are exceedingly rare. Anesthesiology practices that specialize in regional anesthesia commonly have systems in place to prevent complications and treat them quickly if or when they occur.