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Objectives To obtain reliable estimates of the effects of neuraxial blockade with epidural or spinal anaesthesia on postoperative morbidity and mortality.
Design Systematic review of all trials with randomisation to intraoperative neuraxial blockade or not.
Studies 141 trials including 9559 patients for which data were available before 1 January 1997. Trials were eligible irrespective of their primary aims, concomitant use of general anaesthesia, publication status, or language. Trials were identified by extensive search methods, and substantial amounts of data were obtained or confirmed by correspondence with trialists.
Main outcome measures All cause mortality, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, myocardial infarction, transfusion requirements, pneumonia, other infections, respiratory depression, and renal failure.
Results Overall mortality was reduced by about a third in patients allocated to neuraxial blockade (103 deaths/4871 patients versus 144/4688 patients, odds ratio = 0.70, 95% confidence interval 0.54 to 0.90, P = 0.006). Neuraxial blockade reduced the odds of deep vein thrombosis by 44%, pulmonary embolism by 55%, transfusion requirements by 50%, pneumonia by 39%, and respiratory depression by 59% (all P [is less than] 0.001). There were also reductions in myocardial infarction and renal failure. Although there was limited power to assess subgroup effects, the proportional reductions in mortality did not deafly differ by surgical group, type of blockade (epidural or spinal), or in those trials in which neuraxial blockade was combined with general anaesthesia compared with trials in which neuraxial blockade was used alone.
Conclusions Neuraxial blockade reduces postoperative mortality and other serious complications. The size of some of these benefits remains uncertain, and further research is required to determine whether these effects are due solely to benefits of neuraxial blockade or partly to avoidance of general anaesthesia. Nevertheless, these findings support more widespread use of neuraxial blockade.
Anaesthesia is commonly classified into two main techniques: general anaesthesia, in which gaseous or intravenous drugs achieve central neurological depression, and regional anaesthesia, in which drugs are administered directly to the spinal cord or nerves to locally block afferent and efferent nerve input. Regional anaesthesia for major thoracic, abdominal, or leg surgery relies on neuraxial blockade by injection of local anaesthetic drugs into either the subarachnoid space (spinal anaesthesia) or into the epidural space surrounding the spinal fluid sac (epidural anaesthesia).
The risks of fatal or life threatening events are increased several fold after major surgery, but there is debate about whether the type of anaesthesia has any substantive effect on these risks. Neuraxial blockade has several physiological effects that provide a rationale for expecting to improve outcome with this technique. However, the few clinical trials of epidural or spinal anaesthesia that have focused specifically on fatal or life threatening events have generally been too small to detect effects of plausible size reliably. To provide more reliable estimates of the effects of neuraxial blockade on postoperative morbidity and mortality, we conducted a systematic review of all relevant randomised trials.
Identification of trials and data collection
We sought to identify all trials in which patients were randomised to receive intraoperative neuraxial blockade (with epidural or spinal anaesthesia) or not. Eligibility …