This post has been a long time in coming- part I was done months ago, but I confess to starting this section, and then managing to forget all about it. However, now that I'm 3 months post-op from my SCS surgery, my doctors and I have decided to resume the SNBs to treat one or two symptoms the SCS doesn't yet cover (mostly just blood flow issues- I have much better blood flow to my legs when I get the injections than when I don't). And so I decided to celebrate my return to Sympathetic Nerve Blocks by finishing the epic post on them.
These are a type of injection that goes in from the back, directly next to the spine, into the sympathetic ganglion nerve bundles that branch off the spine between the spine and the internal organs. These injections should always be done under fluoroscopy, a type of x-ray, for safety considering the proximity to organs and the spinal cord. The mix of meds injected includes a local anesthetic to numb the nerves to ease the pain from the injection and anti inflammatories to reduce inflammation in the nerves of the sympathetic nervous system. By slowly reducing inflammation in the nerves, the pain and other symptoms of CRPS can be reduced.
Like all treatments for CRPS, the results tend to be mixed. Some patients find them nearly miraculous, and having 3 or more succesful injections within 1 year of onset of the disease has actually be found to prompt remission in a few lucky patients. Most patients recieve partial relief and find them a valuable tool. And some people recieve no relief from them, just as with all types of treatment for any disease.
The sooner into the course of the disease the injections are started, the more effective they are, in general. However, that's not a hard and fast rule of thumb- I began recieving nerve blocks more than 6 years after the onset and I get decent relief from the shots (I personally find them most effective on the burning type pain, the swelling and discoloration, and the allydonia). I'm a firm believer that if there are no contraindications, such as allergies, that they are worth a try, especially in patients who are within 1 year of onset. I'm not going to lie, though- the first shot isn't always going to work. It can take up to 3 tries to find the right vertebrea to target, as not everyones anatomy is identical. If, after 3 shots, there is still zero relief, then most doctors recommend discontinuing the shots. The first shot usually gives about 1 hour to 1 day of relief, and that's fine- the effect of the injections is cumulative and after a few rounds, I get 4 weeks from them. Between 4 weeks and a few months is the norm for duration of relief once you've recieved several injections.
Since the doctor who does my SNBs is an amazingly awesome guy, and a massive believer in SNBs, he actually took pictures of me during the injection process for me to share with people. (Doc is such a big believer for a reason- he started his career as a pediatrician, and actually was my doctor when I was a little girl. He developed CRPS type I after breaking his ankle years ago. Due to his connections in the medical field, he had a diagnosis and his first injection within 1 month of onset. He got lucky, and went into remission and changed specialties right after, to help others recieve proper pain care. I love this guy for so many reasons!)
Step 1- An IV. Most patients prefer to recieve a small bolus of pain meds to relax them and help dull the pain of the shot. I'm a crazo, though, and my IV contains only saline, to help offset the fact that my already low blood pressure loves to drop right after the injection. Works like a charm for me, and I find the pain of the injection to be very transient. If you choose to recieve pain meds in your IV, you will need a driver to take you home and your appointment will take about twice as long.
Step 2- Get comfy on the table under the floroscope machine.
Step 3- The assistant will prep your back using the same type of scrub as before a surgery. My doctor likes to mark the right spot for the injection first, by using a small piece of metal and quick X-ray via the floroscope to make sure he's got the same spot as prior injections, then he'll put a small dot with a permanent marker on the spot, then they prep the skin.
Step 4 (optional)- Numbing the skin with lidocaine. This is totally optional and only some doctors even offer it. I'd skip it even if it was offered- frankly, the lidocaine will only reach 1/3 to 1/4 as deep as the actual nerve block needle goes, so all this does is numb the skin to the tugging of the needle.
Step 5- Inserting the nerve block needle. As I've mentioned, these needles are long, but they are thin and flexible. While inserting, the doc will assess several times with the floroscope, to make sure he's in just the right spot. The needle will actually go in to the side of the vertebrea, then hit the side of the bone and use it's curved shape to curve under the spine, allowing it to access nerves trapped between the spine and major organs.
Step 6- Checking final placement. When the doc thinks the needle is in just the right spot, they will remove the metal, inner portion of the nerve block needle, leaving a thin plastic catheter behind. They then inject a teeny bit of dye and use the floroscope machine again to confirm the needles placement. If the dye is in just the right spot, the doc will then inject a teeny portion of the nerve block cocktail and wait a few minutes. This is to make sure the needle isn't too close to any major blood vessels. If it's too close, then the medication can get sucked into the blood supply and cause ringing in the ears and a metallic taste. If all is good, after a couple minutes of waiting to be sure, then the doc moves on.
Step 7- Inject the full cocktail. They like to keep you laying flat for a minute or two, to let things soak in, then all is said and done and the doc will remove the needle (which is quick and easy).
Then you're done!