Risks and benefits of thoracic epidural anaesthesia

Br J Anaesth. 2011 Dec;107(6):859-68. doi: 10.1093/bja/aer339. Epub 2011 Nov 4.


Thoracic epidural anaesthesia (TEA) reduces cardiac and splanchnic sympathetic activity and thereby influences perioperative function of vital organ systems. A recent meta-analysis suggested that TEA decreased postoperative cardiac morbidity and mortality. TEA appears to ameliorate gut injury in major surgery as long as the systemic haemodynamic effects of TEA are adequately controlled. The functional benefit in fast-track and laparoscopic surgery needs to be clarified. Better pain control with TEA is established in a wide range of surgical procedures. In a setting of advanced surgical techniques, fast-track regimens and a low overall event rate, the number needed to treat to prevent one death by TEA is high. The risk of harm by TEA is even lower, and other methods used to control perioperative pain and stress response also carry specific risks. To optimize the risk-benefit balance of TEA, safe time intervals regarding the use of concomitant anticoagulants and consideration of reduced renal function impairing their elimination must be observed. Infection is a rare complication and is associated with better prognosis. Close monitoring and a predefined algorithm for the diagnosis and treatment of spinal compression or infection are crucial to ensure patient safety with TEA. The risk-benefit balance of analgesia by TEA is favourable and should foster clinical use.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, Epidural* / adverse effects
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures
  • Gastrointestinal Motility
  • Humans
  • Intestines / blood supply
  • Ischemia / prevention & control
  • Patient Safety
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Thoracic Vertebrae