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Epidural Air Injection Assessed by Transesophageal Echocardiography
  1. Richard A. Jaffe, M.D., Ph.D.,
  2. Lawrence C. Siegel, M.D.,
  3. Ingela Schnittger, M.D.,
  4. Jon W. Propst, M.D., Ph.D. and
  5. John G. Brock-Utne, M.D., Ph.D.
  1. Department of Anesthesia and Division of Cardiology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California
  1. Reprint requests: J. G. Brock-Utne, M.D., Department of Anesthesia, H3580, Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, CA 94305.


Background and Objectives The object of this study, using transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) in anesthetized patients, was to investigate the occurrence of venous air embolism (VAE) when air is injected into the epidural space.

Methods Six patients between the ages of 18 and 50 years (ASA I-II) undergoing general anesthesia in a supine position for nonthoracic surgical procedures were studied. Prior to general anesthesia, an epidural catheter was placed into the epidural space using a Tuohy needle and a standard saline loss-of-resistance technique. Following verification of proper catheter placement, general anesthesia was induced and the trachea intubated. Thereafter, a TEE probe was inserted into the esophagus. After a 10-minute control period, and during continuous TEE videotape recording, 5 mL of air was rapidly injected into the epidural space through the epidural catheter. This was followed 10 minutes later by the epidural injection of 5 mL of room-temperature preservative-free saline. Microbubble echo targets were quantified in a range from 0 to 4+.

Results Venous air microbubble emboli appeared in the circulation within 15 seconds after injecting either air or saline into the epidural space.

Conclusions No evidence of clinically significant VAE was seen in any patient. The results suggest that drugs injected into the epidural space may have unexpectedly easy access to the venous circulation with a potential to produce unwanted systemic effects. Clinicians should be alert to the possibility that local anesthetics, or any other drug placed epidurally, may rapidly enter the systemic circulation even without the intravenous placement of an epidural catheter.

  • anesthetics
  • epidural anesthesia
  • embolism
  • venous air embolism measurement technique
  • transesophageal echocardiography

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