Continuous Peripheral Nerve Blocks: A Review of the Published Evidence : Anesthesia & Analgesia

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Analgesia: Review Article

Continuous Peripheral Nerve Blocks

A Review of the Published Evidence

Ilfeld, Brian M. MD, MS

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Anesthesia & Analgesia 113(4):p 904-925, October 2011. | DOI: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e3182285e01
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Continuous peripheral nerve blocks (CPNBs) are relatively simple in concept: a catheter is percutaneously inserted adjacent to a peripheral nerve, followed by local anesthetic administration via the catheter (Fig. 1). Thus, the terms CPNB and “perineural local anesthetic infusion” are often used synonymously. Using currently available long-acting local anesthetics, the maximal duration of a single-injection peripheral nerve block is 8 to 24 hours. Therefore, CPNB provides an alternative option when a prolonged neural blockade is desired.1,2 Since its first description in 1946,3 CPNB has evolved from an experimental case report involving a needle inserted through a cork taped to a patient's chest, to a well-validated analgesic technique accepted by the medical community with products designed solely for its application. This article is an evidence-based review of the published CPNB literature.

Figure 1:
Illustration of a continuous peripheral nerve block involving the femoral nerve. This particular perineural catheter insertion technique employs electrical stimulation alone via a stimulating catheter.


The earliest reports of CPNB describe prolonging intraoperative surgical anesthesia3,4 and treating intractable hiccups.5 Later articles report using CPNB-induced sympathectomy and vasodilation to increase blood flow after a vascular accident,6 digit transfer/replantation,7,8 or limb salvage9; alleviate the vasospasm of Raynaud disease10; and treat peripheral embolism.11 After trauma, CPNB can provide analgesia during transportation to a distant treatment center12 or while simply awaiting surgical repair.13 Although yet unvalidated, reports describe CPNB to treat chronic pain, such as complex regional pain syndrome,14 intractable phantom limb pain,15 as well as pain from terminal cancer16 and trigeminal neuralgia.17 However, the overwhelming majority of CPNB reports involve the perioperative period, and only this application of perineural local anesthetic infusion remains validated with randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs).18

Because there are intrinsic risks with CPNB, most providers restrict its use to surgical procedures that are expected to result in pain not easily controlled with less-invasive analgesic techniques (e.g., oral analgesics, cooling/heating pads)19 or in patients with an intolerance to alternative analgesics (e.g., opioid-induced nausea).20,21 The surgical site dictates the anatomic location of catheter insertion (Table 1). Although not as thoroughly validated as in adults, CPNB has been described in hundreds of pediatric patients.14,2227

Table 1:
Catheter Locations


Historically, perineural catheters were inserted using induced paresthesia,3 a facial “click,”28 or fluoroscopic guidance.29 However, after the introduction of portable nerve stimulators in the 1970s, the overwhelming majority of published CPNB reports involve this modality. Originally, this technique involved using electrical current to place an insulated needle adjacent to a peripheral nerve, followed by injection of local anesthetic and subsequent perineural catheter insertion. Although multiple prospective studies document the possible high success rate of this procedure,3033 others have found an unacceptably high rate of “secondary block” failure,34 presumably when the catheter tip was unknowingly misplaced during insertion.35 To help counter this risk, the perineural catheter may be first inserted, followed by a local anesthetic bolus via the catheter itself.3639 However, remaining unknown is whether a relatively large bolus of concentrated local anesthetic resulting in a successful nerve block guarantees that the catheter tip is close enough to the target nerve(s) to provide analgesia during the subsequent infusion with relatively small volumes of dilute local anesthetic. Regardless, even if prediction of successful perineural infusion is provided, the identification of those failed catheters requires waiting at least 15 minutes for block onset/failure, followed by removal of the catheter/dressing, repreparation, and catheter reinsertion, a process requiring a longer period of time than many practices permit.40 In addition, a partial block is possible, suggesting the catheter tip is not optimally located, but often precluding replacement using electrical current.

An option is the use of a “stimulating catheter” in which an electrical current is used with an insulated needle to locate the target nerve(s), followed by the insertion of a perineural catheter that conducts current to its tip.19,41,42 If muscle contraction intensity decreases during catheter advancement, it is presumed that the catheter tip is moving away from the target nerve.43 This provides real-time evidence of catheter-nerve distance.44 There are data to suggest that in the area of the popliteal fossa, using stimulation during catheter advancement results in the catheter tip being placed closer to the sciatic nerve.4548 Although there are limited data suggesting a similar improvement for femoral and interscalene catheters,43,49,50 the clinical relevance is questionable for these anatomic locations.5156

Unfortunately, continuous muscle contraction guarantees neither surgical block nor postoperative infusion success.43,5759 In addition, adequate muscle response cannot always be elicited with catheter advancement43,5964; and stimulating catheters take more time on average for placement and cost more than their nonstimulating counterparts,48,65 leading some to question their overall benefit.66 There is minimal,67 if any, benefit of injecting fluid via the needle before catheter insertion to “open” the perineural space,68 but D5W is recommended if a bolus is used.69,70 Lastly, there are few data to provide recommendations on the minimal acceptable current resulting in a muscle response.71

The optimal distance to advance a perineural catheter past the needle tip remains unknown, but there are data to suggest that increasing the insertion distance is correlated with an increased risk of catheter coiling, and possibly the final nerve-to-catheter tip distance.36,7274 Considering the multiple catheter knots reported with insertion >5 cm,7578 and the lack of data suggesting insertion lengths >5 cm is beneficial, recommending a maximal insertion of 5 cm seems warranted.66 Recently reported “self-coiling catheters” may render this issue moot in the future if they are found reliable and approved for human use.79 Similarly, the optimal minimum insertion distance remains unknown, with evidence that 0 to 1 cm results in a minimal risk of secondary block failure,33,80 but possibly an increased risk of subsequent dislodgement.81


Unfortunately, data from controlled trials involving electrical stimulation–guided catheter insertion, or even ultrasound-guided single-injection blocks, is not automatically applicable to ultrasound-guided catheter insertion for multiple reasons. Although the limited length of this review article precludes an in-depth discussion of these issues, the information is available elsewhere.82 Whereas many relatively large series demonstrate the feasibility of ultrasound-guided catheter insertion,8386 there are currently few RCTs to help guide practice.87 One study suggests that for infraclavicular catheters, there is little difference in the surgical block resulting from a bolus of local anesthetic injected via the needle before catheter insertion compared with the catheter after needle removal.88 Another RCT demonstrates the difficulty and poorer success rate of inserting a catheter with the longitudinal plane of the needle parallel to the femoral nerve compared with a perpendicular orientation.89 Lastly, a recent publication suggests that for interscalene catheters, a needle with its long axis parallel to the nerve has distinct benefits compared with a perpendicular needle-to-nerve orientation.90

Because of the multiple variables for various blocks/ techniques (e.g., bolus via the catheter versus needle, catheter insertion distance, and catheter design), applying the results of one study to others' practices will most likely prove difficult.82 For example, the results of the above-mentioned infraclavicular catheter study will probably not be replicated with a single catheter injection of local anesthetic via a popliteal sciatic catheter because of differences in perineural anatomy between the 2 sites.91 Similarly, in the RCT comparing anterolateral and posterior approaches,90 a relatively rigid 3-orifice catheter was used, greatly increasing the chance that for the posterior approach all 3 orifices would fail to reside within the narrow facial (anterior-posterior) plane containing the brachial plexus.92 Evidence from other investigations suggests that the posterior approach is highly reliable using a relatively flexible single-orifice catheter,62,93 and that using a flexible catheter for other needle in-plane approaches may help avoid the catheter tip bypassing the target nerve during insertion.74,81

Simply visualizing the catheter tip in close relation to the target nerve intuitively seems to be an obvious solution; however, in practice, identifying the tip is often challenging because, unlike rigid needles, flexible catheters do not usually remain within the ultrasound plane of view. Although there are exceptions,94,95 many investigators observe the location of fluid,96 an agitated fluid/air mixture,97 or simply air98,99 injected through the catheter. Unfortunately, the positive and negative predictive value of each of these methods remains unknown, and even what constitutes a “positive” or “negative” test has yet to be determined. Future technological developments in equipment such as 3-dimensional ultrasound may render this issue moot.100


Many RCTs suggest that for most anatomic locations, catheters inserted with ultrasound guidance provide at least similar analgesia, and often decrease insertion-related discomfort and insertion time, compared with an electrical technique using an insulated needle and nonstimulating101103 or stimulating catheters.61,62,64,104,105 And while there are reports of combining nerve stimulation and ultrasound guidance for catheter insertion,43,106 the majority of these reports do not suggest much benefit93,97,104,107109—and often increasing difficulties compared with using one technique alone104,110,111—leading some to question the utility of stimulating catheters,110 and even insulated needles112 (while others disagree).19,56,106,113,114 Currently, insufficient data are available to determine the optimal techniques/equipment for these insertion modalities, and their associated risks and benefits.82 Case in point is 1 RCT providing contrary evidence that for popliteal-sciatic catheters, a stimulating catheter provides improved analgesia in those successfully placed using a strict insertion protocol.63 Another RCT suggests that combining ultrasound guidance and nerve stimulation for catheter insertion leads to decreased local anesthetic consumption, opioid use, and pain scores.106

There are some clinical situations in which ultrasound is a superior modality, at least theoretically, such as after limb amputation,115 when sensory nerves are solely targeted,116 with concomitant anticoagulation,117 or when an electrically induced muscle response is either undesirable118 or cannot be elicited.119 However, ultrasound nerve/plexus/ needle-tip visualization/identification are often difficult for relatively deep targets, in which case nerve stimulation may prove beneficial.120122 There are also situations, such as when placing a posterior lumbar plexus catheter, whereby prepuncture ultrasound visualization may aid subsequent electrical stimulation–guided catheter insertion.123 Lastly, the relative costs of each insertion modality must be accounted for, with 1 investigation suggesting that for single-injection peripheral nerve blocks, the use of ultrasound guidance is at least as financially competitive, and often becomes a “profit center,” depending on the clinical scenario, compared with electrical stimulation.124


Local anesthetic is the primary analgesic infused during CPNB. Although intermediate-duration drugs may be used,125,126 the most frequently reported drugs are ropivacaine, bupivacaine, and levobupivacaine because of their longer duration of action and favorable sensory:motor block ratio.127 Because the precise equipotency ratios of perineural local anesthetics remain unknown, comparisons are problematic.128 Although the available data suggest bupivacaine and levobupivacaine have higher potency than ropivacaine,129,130 all 3 provide similar analgesia within human trials. However, the ropivacaine concentration is often increased up to 50% to compensate for decreased potency.20,129134 One study of interscalene infusion provides evidence that ropivacaine 0.2% induces fewer finger paresthesias and less hand weakness than bupivacaine 0.15%.133 However, similar investigations using different concentrations of levobupivacaine and ropivacaine suggest that any differences in the induced motor block are minimal as long as the ropivacaine concentration is increased by approximately 50%.129132 Conversely, there are data to suggest that when the perineural infusion is discontinued, the sensory and motor effects of bupivacaine greatly outlast those of ropivacaine.133 This may be relevant when titration of local anesthetic to limit undesired effects is needed (e.g., femoral perineural infusion–induced quadriceps femoris weakness limiting ambulation, or an insensate extremity during infraclavicular or popliteal sciatic infusion). Of note, data derived from laboratory animals suggest that both ropivacaine and bupivacaine induce tissue injury,135,136 but ropivacaine results in significantly less damage.137,138 The clinical implications of these data remain unknown.

It also remains unknown whether the primary determinant of CPNB effects is solely local anesthetic dose (mass),129,131,139,140 or if volume (rate) and/or concentration exert additional influence. For single-injection nerve blocks, volume and concentration primarily determine efficacy when dose is held constant.141,142 However, for continuous blocks, data from the only study that varied both the infusion rate and concentration in a static ratio so that the total dose was comparable in each treatment group suggest that local anesthetic concentration does not influence block effects as long as the total dose remains constant.143 Unfortunately, the results from this study of posterior lumbar plexus ropivacaine infusion may not be applicable to other anatomic locations,140,144146 local anesthetics,127,132134 infusion rates,67,140,147 local anesthetic concentrations,133,140,148150 or bolus dose/volume combinations,147 and thus further investigation is required for a definitive answer.

To complicate the issue, in the clinical setting, patient-controlled bolus doses and/or an adjustable basal infusion rate are often provided, and therefore total local anesthetic dose varies depending on individual patient requirements.57,129,144146,151,152 In these clinical cases, it seems that concentration and rate do influence infusion effects.145,146,151 Unfortunately, currently published studies provide widely conflicting data, probably because of the many variables influencing infusion effects and analgesic requirements.129,144146,151153 For example, studies involving interscalene ropivacaine infusion report increasing local anesthetic concentration results in increased,129 decreased,144 or no152,153 difference in postoperative analgesia. Similarly, increasing local anesthetic concentration has differing effects on the incidence of an insensate extremity depending on catheter site location: increased for infraclavicular,145 decreased for popliteal,146 no difference for axillary,153 and variable for interscalene.139,144,152 Therefore, no optimal concentration/rate combination may be recommended for all anatomic locations, and further study is warranted. For bupivacaine/levobupivacaine and ropivacaine, the most frequently cited concentrations are between 0.1% to 0.125% and 0.1% to 0.2%, respectively.

Several medications are occasionally added to the local anesthetic during CPNB in an attempt to improve analgesia without increasing motor block. There are reports of the inclusion of opioid with perineural local anesthetic,147,154,155 but currently there are insufficient data to draw any conclusions regarding its efficacy.156,157 Although clonidine was often added in the earlier years of CPNB,147,154,158161 3 subsequent RCTs failed to demonstrate any clinically relevant benefits.65,162,163 An additional RCT found no benefit to adding epinephrine to perineural ropivacaine,164 and possible prolonged vasoconstriction places the safety of this practice into doubt.8,165167 Additional possible adjuvants have been reported, but none is currently approved for perineural use in patients,168,169 and some may have unacceptable systemic effects.169


Infusates may be administered with 3 main strategies: exclusively as a basal infusion or bolus dose, and a combination of these 2 modalities. Unfortunately, similar to the data involving local anesthetic concentration, studies of delivery strategy are somewhat mixed (Table 2).170,171 In general, RCTs involving femoral and fascia iliaca infusions have reported few differences in analgesia among the various delivery regimens (other than reduced local anesthetic use with bolus-only dosing).154,158,172 Conversely, for sciatic catheters, providing a basal infusion maximizes analgesia and other benefits,170,171 although the data regarding the benefits of adding patient-controlled bolus doses are less clear.170,171,173

Table 2:
Local Anesthetic Delivery Regimens for Continuous Peripheral Nerve Blocks

Interestingly, providing automated, hourly, 5-mL bolus doses of levobupivacaine via a popliteal sciatic catheter decreased pain scores compared with patients receiving a continuous, 5-mL basal infusion of 0.125% levobupivacaine174 (although a similar investigation involving femoral ropivacaine infusion failed to detect differences in sensory or motor effects).94 However, by adding patient-controlled bolus doses to these 2 regimens, the difference in pain scores disappeared.175 Importantly, all investigations report less total consumption of local anesthetic with regimens providing patient-controlled bolus doses, suggesting the desirability of including this modality for 3 main reasons: (1) decreasing the required basal infusion rate and thus theoretically decreasing motor block (inadequately investigated to date)94,133,176; (2) decreasing the incidence of an insensate extremity31; and (3) increasing the duration of infusion/analgesia for ambulatory patients discharged with a finite volume of local anesthetic.170,177

In contrast to the lower extremity, investigations of interscalene147 and infraclavicular57 perineural infusion are more uniform and suggest that including a basal infusion improves baseline analgesia, decreases the incidence and severity of breakthrough pain, and decreases sleep disturbances and supplemental analgesic requirements. Furthermore, adding patient-controlled bolus doses to a basal infusion decreases total local anesthetic consumption and supplemental analgesic requirements,57,147,173 allows block reinforcement during dressing changes or physical therapy,147,178,179 and may provide increased independent activity.173 Additional RCTs attempting to further refine interscalene dosing report somewhat conflicting results. One study provides evidence that a high basal rate combined with low-volume, patient-controlled bolus doses reduces baseline pain scores and sleep disturbances, and decreases the incidence and severity of breakthrough pain, but at a cost of increasing local anesthetic consumption.67 However, other similar investigations report few differences in varying the basal infusion rate.140,173,180

Unfortunately, because of the heterogenicity of catheter types, insertion techniques, and a myriad of additional factors, there is little evidence for an “optimal” infusion regimen. Until recommendations based on prospectively collected data are available, health care providers may wish to consider that most published investigations report a basal rate of 4 to 10 mL/h (lower rates for catheters of the lower extremity; higher rates for the upper extremity), a bolus volume of 2 to 10 mL, and a bolus lockout period of 20 to 60 minutes. Similarly, the maximum recommended hourly total dose of local anesthetic during perineural infusion remains unknown,181 but a wide safety margin has been documented in numerous clinical trials,125,140,148,182187 with 1 study reporting no toxicity signs or symptoms with perineural ropivacaine 0.2% administered at basal rates up to 14 mL/h and large, repeated boluses of ropivacaine 0.5% (10–60 mL) provided for up to 27 days.188


Although perineural local anesthetic may be provided using exclusively human-administered bolus doses,189 both clinical factors (e.g., basal infusion benefits) as well as logistical considerations190 usually dictate the use of an infusion pump. There is no single optimal device for all situations, given the multitude of clinical scenarios and practice requirements, so pump preference is usually based on the desired device characteristics.191 Infusion pumps may be (arbitrarily) categorized by their power source. Although spring- and vacuum-powered devices are available, neither is particularly desirable for the purpose of CPNB because of a multitude of factors, including highly variable basal infusion rates and relatively small local anesthetic reservoir volumes, respectively.192,193 Until recently, elastomeric infusion pumps were severely limited relative to the capabilities of electronic devices190; however, with the advent of newer nonelectronic pumps, this is no longer the case.

In general, electronic devices provide very accurate and consistent (±5%) basal infusion rates over the entire course of infusion.192195 In contrast, elastomeric pumps usually overinfuse (110%–130% expected) during the initial 3 to 8 hours of infusion and within the final hours before reservoir exhaustion,192196 resulting in a shorter infusion duration than anticipated given the initial reservoir volume and set basal infusion rate.192195,197,198 However, whether the increased variability is clinically significant, or in which clinical situations it is relevant, remains unknown. Unlike electronic devices, the basal infusion rate of most elastomeric devices increases with increasing ambient temperature and pump height relative to the catheter insertion site,192195,198 although these changes are probably clinically relevant only at extreme values.

An adjustable basal infusion rate allows local anesthetic administration titration in case of an insensate extremity,31 undesired side effects (e.g., muscle weakness),94,180 inadequate analgesia,170 or desire to maximize infusion duration (e.g., ambulatory patients with a set reservoir volume).57,170,177 In addition, a patient-controlled bolus function often provides many clinical benefits.57,147 All electronic pumps provide an adjustable basal rate, patient-controlled bolus doses, and a variable bolus lockout period.192195 Although most elastomeric devices provide a fixed basal infusion rate,191 a few now provide flexibility similar to their electronic counterparts. Nearly all electronic pumps use an external local anesthetic reservoir that allows for easy reservoir exchanges.116,188 In contrast, all elastomeric devices have an internal reservoir. Even though refilling such devices has been investigated,199,200 this procedure is not approved by manufacturers/governments for the majority of devices, requiring the use of an additional unit if continued infusion is desired after reservoir exhaustion.173,201203 Regardless of reservoir type, filling the infusion pump/reservoir within the United States must now be executed within an isolation class 5 environment, essentially requiring local anesthetic compounding within a designated pharmacy with a laminar flow workbench.204

Nonelectronic infusion pumps are often favored for their relative simplicity in both initially setting and subsequently adjusting the basal infusion rate205; for their light weight and smaller size206; their lack of audible alarms206,207 (although there is no warning for a pause in the infusion)208; disposability209; and for their silent operation (noise generated by electronic pumps may disturb patient sleep).206 In addition, elastomeric devices with a manufacturer-fixed basal rate and no bolus dose capability are usually relatively inexpensive.191 Conversely, reusable electronic pumps use inexpensive disposable “cassettes” to provide sterile infusion for individual patients.177 A limited number of single-use electronic devices are available.144146 Lastly, although the reliability for most infusion pumps is high, regardless of power source, certain devices are more dependable than others for both electronic207,210213 and nonelectronic pumps.196,208


First described in 1997,214 CPNB may be provided to patients outside of the hospital using a portable infusion pump, and nearly every catheter type (i.e., anatomic location) has been reported in ambulatory patients.191 Perineural infusion is often provided for ambulatory surgery without an overnight hospital stay,8486 but the technique may be used to shorten hospitalization178,215 and/or provide benefits after discharge either home or to a skilled nursing facility.33,200 Time constraints are often more restrictive in high-turnover ambulatory centers,85 making insertion techniques with documented time savings frequently desirable (e.g., ultrasound guidance).61,64,105,216 Because patients are rarely directly monitored outside of the hospital, and not all patients desire or are capable of accepting the additional responsibility of caring for the catheter and pump system, patient selection criteria are often more stringent for ambulatory CPNB. In an effort to avoid local anesthetic toxicity, patients with renal or hepatic insufficiency are often excluded from outpatient perineural infusion.182 For infusions possibly affecting the phrenic nerve and weakening the ipsilateral diaphragm (e.g., interscalene and paravertebral catheters),217219 caution is warranted for individuals with heart/lung disease and in obese patients who may not be able to compensate for mild hypoxia and/or hypercarbia.220,221 Of note, age alone is not an absolute exclusion criterion, with hundreds of pediatric patients receiving at-home CPNB without complication rates or severity higher than for their adult counterparts.14,2426

Providing ambulatory CPNB often leads to a reduced time until discharge readiness33,58,178,222 and, in some cases, actual discharge.178,215 After tricompartmental knee arthroplasty, permitting early discharge with ambulatory femoral infusion results in decreased hospitalization-related costs.223 However, although ambulatory continuous femoral and posterior lumbar plexus nerve blocks decrease the time until important discharge criteria are met,33,58,222 an increased incidence of patient falls in patients receiving ropivacaine versus saline through their catheters suggests that increased caution is warranted before implementing early discharge.176 Nevertheless, relatively small published series demonstrate the feasibility of total joint arthroplasty with only a single-night hospital stay, or even on an outpatient basis, when patients are permitted to continue their hospital-based perineural infusion at home.84,202,203,224,225

Although the benefits of home CPNB are well documented with many placebo-controlled RCTs,31,33,34,58,93,178,222,226,227 there are negligible published data regarding the optimal practice for multiple aspects of ambulatory infusion, such as the requirement of a patient caretaker86; method/frequency of patient oversight (e.g., home nursing visits,173,228,229 telephone calls,20,205 or simply written instructions with solely patient-initiated contact); and catheter removal protocol (health care provider extraction,173,229 caretaker withdrawal with instructions provided by telephone,222 or simply written instructions226). Of 40 patients with a hospital-based CPNB, 13% stated they would be unwilling to remove their catheter at home.230 However, of patients who previously removed a perineural catheter at home, 98% felt “comfortable” doing the procedure with instructions given by telephone, only 4% would have preferred to return to the hospital for health care provider catheter removal, and 43% would have felt comfortable with exclusively written instructions.205 Of note, at least within the United States, there are no national guidelines regarding the maximal safe CPNB duration.204


Whereas case reports and series suggest numerous possible benefits of CPNB for a wide variety of ailments,517 published RCTs include exclusively postoperative patients. Providing analgesia is the primary indication for postoperative CPNB,18 and most CPNB benefits seem to be dependent on successfully improving pain control (Table 3).18 Potent analgesia is most dramatic for surgical sites that are completely innervated by nerves affected by the perineural infusion, as is often the case for shoulder and foot procedures (interscalene and sciatic perineural catheters, respectively).31,34,93,178,215,226,230 Unfortunately, brachial plexus infusions for procedures at or distal to the elbow seem to provide less-impressive analgesia,227 even though they (theoretically) cover the entire surgical site. RCT-documented benefits of axillary,153 supraclavicular,231233 and transversus abdominus plane234 infusion are severely lacking. Although the benefits of infraclavicular infusion are validated,227 analgesia is often less than optimal unless a high enough dose of local anesthetic is administered, frequently rendering the extremity insensate.57,145

Table 3:
Benefits of Continuous Peripheral Nerve Blocks Documented in Randomized Controlled Trials Including at Least One Treatment Group Without a Regional Analgesic

Similarly, femoral or posterior lumbar plexus infusion may result in unacceptable quadriceps femoris and hip adductor weakness when a high enough dose of local anesthetic is administered to optimize analgesia.94 In addition, a single perineural infusion for surgical sites innervated by multiple nerves, most notably the hip, knee, and ankle, may provide less than optimal analgesia without the concurrent use of additional analgesics.33,58,146 Of published reports, nearly all investigators provide a single infusion, often supplemented with a separate single-injection peripheral nerve block (e.g., sciatic block after knee surgery).235 Some individuals have proposed inserting a second catheter,236238 although there are minimal and somewhat conflicting data to guide clinical practice.239,240 Whereas a lumbar epidural provides generally equivalent analgesia to femoral perineural infusion for hip and knee arthroplasty, CPNB results in a more favorable side-effect profile without the risk of epidural hematoma during concomitant anticoagulant administration.159,161,241,242

Although the evidence for CPNB benefits during local anesthetic infusion is overwhelming, there are few data demonstrating benefits after catheter removal. Exceptions include improved analgesia after a few days2,32,243 or 6 months240; more rapid resumption of unassisted standing and lavatory use2; increased health-related quality of life in 1 study244 (but not 5 others)245249; and faster tolerance of passive knee flexion2 resulting in earlier discharge from rehabilitation centers.159,161 Conspicuously lacking is evidence of medium- or long-term improvements in health-related quality-of-life measures.245250


As with all medical procedures, the potential CPNB benefits must be weighed against the potential risks. Fortunately, infusion-related serious and lasting injuries are uncommon, whereas relatively minor complications occur at a frequency similar to single-injection peripheral nerve blocks.251 Unfortunately, heterogeneous catheter insertion techniques, equipment, anatomic locations, and infusions render generalizations difficult. For example, various prospective studies report an incidence of secondary block (infusion) failure of 1%,252 20%,34 and 50%.36 Thus, the specific complication rates provided in this section will not apply to all practices. CPNB-specific complications during catheter insertion include inaccurate catheter tip placement too far from the target nerve to provide postoperative analgesia,35 and in exceptionally rare cases, epidural,253255 intrathecal,256258 intravascular,227,259 intraneural,260 and even interpleural catheter insertion.261 Catheter migration after accurate placement has been suggested,262 but also doubted,263 and the dearth of published events suggests that it is an exceptionally rare event, if it even occurs at all.

During the perineural infusion, more common (and benign) complications include catheter dislodgement or obstruction116,173,252 and fluid leakage at the catheter site.173,227 Although not prospectively investigated, subcutaneous catheter tunneling,41,264 application of liquid adhesive,191 use of a catheter anchoring device,191 and applying 2-octyl cyanoacrylate glue265 may decrease the incidence of dislodgement and leakage.

Additional possible complications include infusion pump malfunction,207,266 undesired pause,208 or disconnection33; skin irritation or allergic reactions to the catheter dressing and/or liquid adhesive267; and catheter-induced brachial plexus irritation.268 In addition, a CPNB-induced insensate extremity may prove disconcerting to patients,269 impede physical therapy and/or ambulation,133,222 and be considered a risk factor for injury by some investigators.145,146 In these cases, the infusion pump is usually paused until sensory perception begins to return, after which the infusion is restarted at a lower basal rate.31,58 Conversely, inadequate analgesia or breakthrough pain may occur, and is often treated by increasing the basal infusion and providing patient-controlled bolus doses, respectively.31,227

More serious (but very rare) complications include myonecrosis with repeated large boluses of bupivacaine270; systemic local anesthetic toxicity126,148,182,271,272; prolonged Horner syndrome273; and catheter knotting,75,76,274 retention,57,275 shearing,126,276,277 or breakage.278 Although infusions potentially affecting the phrenic nerve may have minimal pulmonary effects for relatively healthy patients,155,217,279 dyspnea is somewhat common,67 and lower lobe collapse has occurred.221 There is limited evidence that the risk of nerve injury from prolonged local anesthetic exposure may be increased in patients with diabetes280,281 and/or preexisting neuropathy.282

There are case reports of peri-catheter hematoma formation,276,283 often with concurrently administered low-molecular-weight heparin for thromboprophylaxis.284286 Most are self-limiting,285 but more dramatic cases require surgical evacuation.283 The most recent (Third) American Society of Regional Anesthesia consensus statement on neuraxial anesthesia and anticoagulation explicitly recommends precautions for neuraxial techniques and that anticoagulation be exercised for “deep” perineural catheters (undefined); specifically, that any catheter be removed before administration of various anticoagulants,287 although this practice has been questioned by various investigators.288293 Also concerning is the association between perineural infusions affecting the femoral nerve and patient falls after hip and knee arthroplasty,176 possibly because of CPNB-induced sensory, proprioception, and/or quadriceps weakness.94 Correlation does not prove causation; however, until further evidence is published, practitioners should consider interventions that may decrease the risk of falls, such as limiting the local anesthetic dose/mass143; providing crutches/walker and a knee immobilizer during ambulation294; and educating surgeons, nurses, and physical therapists of possible CPNB-induced deficits and fall precautions.

Although the reported rates of inflammation (3%– 4%)252,266,295 and catheter bacterial colonization (6%–57%) are seemingly high,296,297 clinically relevant infection is relatively rare (incidence 0%–3%298,299; but most reports <1%).38,126,251,296,300 Risk factors include admission to an intensive care unit, absence of perioperative antibiotic prophylaxis, and male sex.266 Although 1 multicenter study found a higher risk with axillary and femoral catheters,266 others have reported the interscalene location as the most problematic.252,299 Risk of infection is also correlated with infusion duration.266 Nonetheless, infusions provided during extended medical transport for up to 34 days116 and provided at home for up to 83 days200 have been reported with a minimal incidence of infection. There is limited evidence that subcutaneous catheter tunneling264 may decrease the risk of bacterial colonization and infection.296 Abscesses have occurred, although the incidence remains unknown, and occasionally require surgical treatment,301 but often do not if timely antibiotic coverage is provided.302304 Although life-threatening catheter-related infections/sepsis have been reported,305,306 there is currently no case of permanent injury due to CPNB-related infection within the English-language literature.298

Perhaps the most feared postinfusion complication is neurologic injury.307 It is often difficult to determine how much of a neurologic deficit, if any, is attributable to CPNB because all surgical procedures are associated with a variable incidence of nerve injury,308 regardless of the application of a regional anesthetic/analgesic.309,310 For example, hip arthroplasty without a regional anesthetic is associated with an incidence of femoral neuropathy as high as 2.3%.310 So, if a study with a regional anesthetic/analgesic in this same patient population found a 1% incidence of femoral neuropathy, it would suggest that the perineural infusion is actually protective; but such an uncontrolled study would seem alarming with such a high incidence of nerve injury “associated” with CPNB. With this critical limitation in mind, the incidence of transient adverse neurologic symptoms associated with CPNB is 0% to 1.4% for interscalene,38,251,252,266,276 0.4% to 0.5% for femoral,266,276 and 0% to 1.0% for sciatic catheters.252,266,272,276 An additional investigation found a 0.2% incidence of neurologic deficits lasting longer than 6 weeks in nearly 3500 catheters from multiple anatomic locations.252 In this latter study, it remains unknown whether the deficits resolved after the 6-week study period, but multiple prospective investigations report that the overwhelming majority of neurologic symptoms present at 4 to 6 weeks resolve spontaneously within 3 months of surgery.38,251,266

There are reported cases of long-term and/or permanent nerve injury in patients with perineural infusion.311 Five large, prospective series38,251,266,272,276 that followed patients for at least 3 months found 3 cases of unresolved adverse neurologic events: a brachial plexus lesion after interscalene infusion (followed 9 months)251; a femoral neuropathy presumably the result of a retroperitoneal hematoma (cause undetermined; months followed not reported)276; and a persistent paraesthesia after a popliteal sciatic catheter (followed through 18 months).272 Combining the results of these studies (4148 subjects) suggests that the risk of neurologic injury lasting longer than 9 months associated with CPNB is 0.07%.38,251,266,272,276 It remains unknown whether CPNB contributed to these cases, or if they would have occured without the addition of a regional analgesic. Although ultrasound guidance may decrease the incidence of many/most of these reported complications,312 there are few data supporting this proposition,313,314 and case reports suggest that completely abolishing such events is unlikely (quite possibly because postoperative neuropathy may occur without any regional anesthetic/analgesic).315317


Although the published literature presented in this review article provides a plethora of information involving CPNB, many aspects of perineural infusion have yet to be fully elucidated, including the optimal catheter insertion modality and technique; infusate(s) and adjuvants; local anesthetic delivery regimen; details of optimizing ambulatory infusion; possible infusion benefits; and the incidence of all possible risks. Furthermore, although CPNB seems to provide far more potent analgesia than wound catheters,318320 and often fewer undesirable side effects than epidural infusion,23,159,161,242,318 many questions remain regarding the optimal analgesic technique for many surgical procedures.321,322 Lastly, perineural infusion must be adequately compared with possible new analgesic techniques.244,323 Only through prospective research will we fully reveal and maximize the potential benefits, while minimizing the potential risks, of CPNB for our patients.


Name: Brian M. Ilfeld, MD, MS.

Contribution: This author helped design the study, conduct the study, and write the manuscript.

Attestation: Brian M. Ilfeld approved the final manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest: Brian M. Ilfeld received research funding from Stryker Instruments, received research funding from Baxter Healthcare, received research funding from Smiths Medical, received research funding from Teleflex Medical, received research funding from Summit Medical, and received honoraria from Kimberly-Clark for workshop instruction.

This manuscript was handled by: Spencer S. Liu, MD.


Brian M. Ilfeld, MD, MS (Clinical Investigation).

Two years after completing my regional anesthesia fellowship, I was awarded a Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research (FAER) Mentored Research Training Grant. This funding provided the opportunity to earn a Master's Degree in Clinical Investigation, as well as allowing completion of multiple pilot studies involving my primary interest at the time, ambulatory continuous peripheral nerve blocks. These exploratory investigations provided data included in a grant proposal sent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was ultimately funded as a 5-year Mentored Career Development Award (in large part because of the Master's Degree the FAER award enabled). The NIH grant provided funding for 80% nonclinical time in addition to specific randomized controlled trials (also involving ambulatory perineural local anesthetic infusion). Five years of protected research time allowed me to take a dozen additional didactic courses to build on knowledge gained during my Master's Degree training; develop skills in designing, executing, and reporting multicenter clinical trials; work with and learn from incredibly talented coinvestigators; serve as an editor for my subspecialty's journal Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine; successfully compete for additional research funding; and help mentor wonderfully gifted and enthusiastic fellows and faculty members with whom I have been so blessed to cross paths. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to work and/or study with extraordinary mentors such as Drs. Kayser Enneking, Nikolaus Gravenstein, Daniel Sessler, Joseph Neal, James Eisenach, Tony Yaksh, and Pamela Duncan, among so many others. Now, 90% of my workweek involves clinical research, and I am very fortunate to serve as the Director of Clinical Research for my section at the University of California San Diego, on the Advisory Board of the UCSD Clinical and Translational Research Institute, and as a reviewer for NIH Special Emphasis Panel/Scientific Review Groups. There is no doubt in my mind that without the investment FAER made in me nearly a decade ago, I would have been able to attain only a small fraction of my career goals. For this, I am, and will for always be, deeply grateful.


The author thanks Eliza Ferguson, BS, research coordinator extraordinaire (University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA), for her assistance with the myriad of articles used in this review.


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