With the growth of ultrasound-guided regional anesthesia, so has the requirement for training tools to practice needle guidance skills and evaluate echogenic needles. Ethically, skills in ultrasound-guided needle placement should be gained in a phantom before performance of nerve blocks on patients in clinical practice. However, phantom technology is varied, and critical evaluation of the images is needed to understand their application to clinical use. Needle visibility depends on the echogenicity of the needle relative to the echogenicity of the tissue adjacent the needle. We demonstrate this point using images of echogenic and nonechogenic needles in 5 different phantoms at both shallow angles (20 degrees) and steep angles (45 degrees). The echogenicity of phantoms varies enormously, and this impacts on how needles are visualized. Water is anechoic, making all needles highly visible, but does not fix the needle to allow practice placement. Gelatin phantoms and Blue Phantoms provide tactile feedback but have very low background echogenicity, which greatly exaggerates needle visibility. This makes skill acquisition easier but can lead to false confidence in regard to clinical ability. Fresh-frozen cadavers retain much of the textural feel of live human tissue and are nearly as echogenic. Similar to clinical practice, this makes needles inserted at steep angles practically invisible, unless they are highly echogenic. This review describes the uses and pitfalls of phantoms that have been described or commercially produced.
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C.H.M. was responsible for the design and development of the Pajunk Sonoplex needle (Pajunk Medizintechnologie, Geisingen, Germany). He was excluded from the imaging process to create Figures 1 and 2.