Background: Central neuraxial blockades find widespread applications. Severe complications are believed to be extremely rare, but the incidence is probably underestimated.
Methods: A retrospective study of severe neurologic complications after central neuraxial blockades in Sweden 1990-1999 was performed. Information was obtained from a postal survey and administrative files in the health care system. During the study period approximately 1,260,000 spinal blockades and 450,000 epidural blockades were administered, including 200,000 epidural blockades for pain relief in labor.
Results: : The 127 complications found included spinal hematoma (33), cauda equina syndrome (32), meningitis (29), epidural abscess (13), and miscellaneous (20). Permanent neurologic damage was observed in 85 patients. Incidence of complications after spinal blockade was within 1:20-30,000 in all patient groups. Incidence after obstetric epidural blockade was 1:25,000; in the remaining patients it was 1:3600 (P < 0.0001). Spinal hematoma after obstetric epidural blockade carried the incidence 1:200,000, significantly lower than the incidence 1:3,600 females subject to knee arthroplasty (P < 0.0001).
Conclusions: : More complications than expected were found, probably as a result of the comprehensive study design. Half of the complications were retrieved exclusively from administrative files. Complications occur significantly more often after epidural blockade than after spinal blockade, and the complications are different. Obstetric patients carry significantly lower incidence of complications. Osteoporosis is proposed as a previously neglected risk factor. Close surveillance after central neuraxial blockade is mandatory for safe practice.