Does Brachial Plexus Blockade Result in Improved Pain Scores After Distal Radius Fracture Fixation? A Randomized Trial

David K Galos, David P Taormina, Alexander Crespo, David Y Ding, Anthony Sapienza, Sudheer Jain, Nirmal C Tejwani
Clinical Orthopaedics and related Research 2016, 474 (5): 1247-54

BACKGROUND: Distal radius fractures are very common injuries and surgical treatment for them can be painful. Achieving early pain control may help improve patient satisfaction and improve functional outcomes. Little is known about which anesthesia technique (general anesthesia versus brachial plexus blockade) is most beneficial for pain control after distal radius fixation which could significantly affect patients' postoperative course and experience.

QUESTIONS/PURPOSES: We asked: (1) Did patients receiving general anesthesia or brachial plexus blockade have worse pain scores at 2, 12, and 24 hours after surgery? (2) Was there a difference in operative suite time between patients who had general anesthesia or brachial plexus blockade, and was there a difference in recovery room time? (3) Did patients receiving general anesthesia or brachial plexus blockade have higher narcotic use after surgery? (4) Do patients receiving general anesthesia or brachial plexus blockade have higher functional assessment scores after distal radius fracture repair at 6 weeks and 12 weeks after surgery?

METHODS: A randomized controlled study was performed between February, 2013 and April, 2014 at a multicenter metropolitan tertiary-care referral center. Patients who presented with acute closed distal radius fractures (Orthopaedic Trauma Association 23A-C) were potentially eligible for inclusion. During the study period, 40 patients with closed, displaced, and unstable distal radius fractures were identified as meeting inclusion criteria and offered enrollment and randomization. Three patients (7.5%), all with concomitant injuries, declined to participate at the time of randomization as did one additional patient (2.5%) who chose not to participate, leaving a final sample of 36 participants. There were no dropouts after randomization, and analyses were performed according to an intention-to-treat model. Patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups, general anesthesia or brachial plexus blockade, and among the 36 patients included, 18 were randomized to each group. Medications administered in the postanesthesia care unit were recorded. Patients were discharged receiving oxycodone and acetaminophen 5/325 mg for pain control, and VAS forms were provided. Patients were called at predetermined intervals postoperatively (2 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, and 72 hours) to gather pain scores, using the VAS, and to document the doses of analgesics consumed. In addition, patients had regular followups at 2 weeks, 6 weeks, and 12 weeks. Pain scores were again recorded using the VAS at these visits.

RESULTS: Patients who received general anesthesia had worse pain scores at 2 hours postoperatively (general anesthesia 6.7 ± 2.3 vs brachial plexus blockade 1.4 ± 2.3; mean difference, 5.381; 95% CI, 3.850-6.913; p < 0.001); whereas reported pain was worse for patients who received a brachial plexus blockade at 12 hours (general anesthesia 3.8 ± 1.9 vs brachial plexus blockade 6.3 ± 2.4; mean difference, -2.535; 95% CI, -4.028 to -1.040; p = 0.002) and 24 hours (general anesthesia 3.8 ± 2.2 vs brachial plexus blockade 5.3 ± 2.5; mean difference, -1.492; 95% CI, -3.105 to 0.120; p = 0.031).There was no difference in operative suite time (general anesthesia 119 ± 16 minutes vs brachial plexus blockade 125 ± 23 minutes; p = 0.432), but time in the recovery room was greater for patients who received general anesthesia (284 ± 137 minutes vs 197 ± 90; p = 0.0398). Patients who received general anesthesia consumed more fentanyl (64 μg ± 93 μg vs 6.9 μg ± 14 μg; p < 0.001) and morphine (2.9 μg ± 3.6 μg vs 0.0 μg; p < 0.001) than patients who received brachial plexus blockade. Functional outcome scores did not differ at 6 weeks (data, with mean and SD for both groups, and p value) or 12 weeks postoperatively (data, with mean and SD for both groups, and p value).

CONCLUSIONS: Brachial plexus blockade pain control during the immediate perioperative period was not significantly different from that of general anesthesia in patients undergoing operative fixation of distal radius fractures. However, patients who received a brachial plexus blockade experienced an increase in pain between 12 to 24 hours after surgery. Acknowledging "rebound pain" after the use of regional anesthesia coupled with patient counseling regarding early narcotic administration may allow patients to have more effective postoperative pain control. It is important to have a conversation with patients preoperatively about what to expect regarding rebound pain, postoperative pain control, and to advise them about being aggressive with taking pain medication before the waning of regional anesthesia to keep one step ahead in their pain control management.

LEVEL OF EVIDENCE: Level 1, therapeutic study.

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