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Primary failure of thoracic epidural analgesia: revisited
  1. De Q Tran1,
  2. Karin Booysen2 and
  3. Hendrik J Botha2
  1. 1 Anesthesia, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  2. 2 Private Anesthesiology Practice, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Dr De Q Tran, Anesthesia, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; de_tran{at}


Primary failure of thoracic epidural analgesia (TEA) remains an important clinical problem, whose incidence can exceed 20% in teaching centers. Since loss-of-resistance (LOR) constitutes the most popular method to identify the thoracic epidural space, the etiology of primary TEA failure can often be attributed to LOR’s low specificity. Interspinous ligamentous cysts, non-fused ligamenta flava, paravertebral muscles, intermuscular planes, and thoracic paravertebral spaces can all result in non-epidural LORs. Fluoroscopy, epidural waveform analysis, electrical stimulation, and ultrasonography have been proposed as confirmatory modalities for LOR.

The current evidence derived from randomized trials suggests that fluoroscopy, epidural waveform analysis, and possibly electrical stimulation, could decrease the primary TEA failure to 2%. In contrast, preprocedural ultrasound scanning provides no incremental benefit when compared with conventional LOR. In the hands of experienced operators, real-time ultrasound guidance of the epidural needle has been demonstrated to provide comparable efficacy and efficiency to fluoroscopy.

Further research is required to determine the most cost-effective confirmatory modality as well as the best adjuncts for novice operators and for patients with challenging anatomy. Moreover, future trials should elucidate if fluoroscopy and electrical stimulation could potentially decrease the secondary failure rate of TEA, and if a combination of confirmatory modalities could outperform individual ones.

  • Acute Pain
  • Ultrasonography

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  • Contributors All authors participated in the writing of manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.