The three-in-one technique of simultaneously blocking the femoral, the lateral femoral cutaneous (LFC), and the obturator nerves by a single injection of a local anesthetic was first described in 1973, and it was suggested that the underlying mechanism was one of cephalad spread resulting in a blockade of the lumbar plexus. Today, the technique is widely used in surgery and pain management of the lower limb. Many investigators have, however, reported suboptimal analgesia levels, particularly in the obturator nerve. The purpose of this prospective study was to trace the distribution of a local anesthetic during a three-in-one block by means of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Seven patients scheduled for surgery of the lower limb were analyzed with the aid of a primary MRI and then received three-in-one blocks using 30 mL of bupivacaine 0.5% under the guidance of a nerve stimulator. A secondary MRI was performed to determine the distribution pattern of the local anesthetic. It emerged that the local anesthetic blocks the femoral nerve directly, the LFC nerve through lateral spread, and the anterior branch of the obturator nerve by slightly spreading in a medial direction. No involvement of the proximal and posterior portions of the obturator nerve was observed, nor was there any cephalad spread that could have resulted in a lumbar plexus blockade. We therefore conclude that the basis of the three-in-one block is confined to lateral, medial, and caudal spread of the local anesthetic, which effectively blocks the femoral and LFC nerves, as well as the distal anterior branch of the obturator nerve.
Implications: We demonstrate by using magnetic resonance imaging that the mechanism of a three-in-one block is one of lateral, caudal, and slight medial spread of a local anesthetic with subsequent blockade of the femoral, the lateral femoral cutaneous, and the anterior branch of the obturator nerves. It does not involve cephalad spread of the local anesthetic with blockade of the lumbar plexus.