Therapeutic vs Diagnostic: What To Expect During A Nerve Block Procedure

Let’s Block The Nerve

A doctor or pain specialist may recommend a nerve block procedure for people with chronic pain. This treatment helps with various conditions, including chronic joint or spine pain. Some common examples include herniated discs, degenerative discs, arthritis pain, and chronic regional pain syndrome. With nerve blocks, a local anesthetic or other medication is injected near a nerve. The goal is to disrupt the pain signals between the nerves near the problem area and the brain. Nerve blocks are a simple, minimally invasive process that can have a therapeutic or diagnostic outcome.

Therapeutic blocks

If the doctor recommends a nerve block for therapeutic use, the goal is to reduce pain as quickly as possible. The injection will contain pain-relieving medication, steroids, and a local anesthetic. Therapeutic nerve blocks are designed to provide long-term relief, often lasting several months, when other pain relievers fail. Nerve blocks are typically recommended for chronic back pain, sciatica, herniated discs, migraine headaches, and other conditions.

Diagnosing the pain

The doctor may often suspect a more severe issue in the spine or joint. A nerve block injection can then serve as a diagnostic tool. The specialist will use only the anesthetic medication to numb the nerve area and locate the pain. The patient works with the medical team to confirm if the pain is gone after the nerve block. If there is no more pain, the doctor or specialist can gauge the location of the issue. From there, follow-up tests, like advanced imaging, are used to diagnose the source of the pain. If there is no improvement, the doctor can move on to another area. Diagnostic nerve blocks are often a precursor to other forms of treatment like radiofrequency ablation or cryotherapy.

Types of nerve blocks

Different types of nerve blocks can be performed by an anesthesiologist, pain specialist, or neurologist. An epidural nerve block is the most frequently used, with the injection placed in the epidural space near the spinal canal. Facet joint injections are common with spinal conditions. The nerve block is placed around the facet joints, the small bones that connect each vertebra. People with sacroiliac joint pain can also receive injections in that area. The goal is to get the medication as close to the affected area as possible. These techniques are used for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes.

What to expect

Nerve blocks are quick outpatient procedures, meaning the patient can leave on the same day. The process takes about 1-2 hours to perform. The patient must prepare for the procedure by temporarily adjusting existing medications and ceasing smoking. Sometimes, the patient will need to fast for several hours before the procedure. The patient will be instructed to lie face down on an operating table. The medical team will clean the area and administer a local anesthetic for numbing. Then, using guided imaging called fluoroscopy, the pain specialist directs the needle to the affected area. Once the needle is in place, the medicine is slowly released, which can cause some discomfort.

After the injection

The patient will stay in the operating room for a short period, and the medical team will monitor for immediate side effects. Patients will generally feel numbness or a loss of sensation in the area, which can be attributed to the anesthesia. The medical team will also begin to assess the effects of the nerve block. On average, the patient should feel relief within a few hours. Patients are required to have support from a friend or family member when leaving the hospital, as the effects of the procedure can limit movement and impair driving. Follow all post-procedure instructions for the best results.

A pain-free future

Nerve blocks are a powerful diagnostic or therapeutic tool. Whatever course the doctor takes, nerve blocks begin the journey to receiving long-term relief for chronic pain. Understanding what happens during the process can ease the stress and anxiety of nerve blocks. As the procedure is non-invasive and accurate, patients can rest assured that the nerve block will help improve pain.


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