The paravertebral nerve blocks used in upper abdominal or thoracic surgery provide excellent pain relief and can inhibit some aspects of the neuroendocrine stress response to surgical trauma, which suggests that a very high-quality afferent block can be effected. To confirm this, we evaluated intercostal somatosensory evoked potentials (SSEPs) in 10 patients undergoing paravertebral nerve blocks as a treatment for chronic pain. SSEPs were recorded before and after ipsilateral thoracic paravertebral deposition of 1.5 mg/kg bupivacaine 0.5%. Sensory loss to temperature was demonstrated in all patients at the level of injection and had a mean superior spread of 1.4 (range 0-4) dermatomes and a mean inferior spread of 2.8 (range 0-7) dermatomes. SSEPs were abolished (the normal waveform was rendered unrecognizable with unmeasurable latencies and a mean amplitude of zero) in all patients at the level of injection. In addition, a two-dermatome SSEP abolition was found in four patients and a three-dermatome abolition was found in two patients. SSEPs were modified, but not significantly, at all other test points. We conclude that cortical responses to thoracic dermatomal stimulation can be abolished at the block level and adjacent dermatomes by thoracic paravertebral nerve blockade. Equivalent results have not been demonstrated with more central forms of afferent blockade, which suggests that thoracic paravertebral nerve blocks may be uniquely effective.
Implications: To improve outcomes after major surgery, as much nociceptive information as possible should be prevented from entering the central nervous and neuroendocrine systems. We have shown that local anesthetics alongside the vertebral column can abolish the usual brain recordings that follow intercostal nerve stimulation, which suggests that paravertebral nerve blocks may be uniquely effective.