The accuracy and reliability of ultrasound are still insufficient to guarantee complete and safe nerve block for all patients. Injection of local anaesthetic close to, but not touching, the nerve is key to outcomes, but the exact relationship between the needle tip and nerve epineurium is difficult to evaluate, even with ultrasound. Ultrasound has insufficient resolution, tissues are difficult to discern due to acoustic impedance and needles are more difficult to see with increased angulation. The limitations of ultrasound have shifted the focus of innovation towards bio-markers that help detect needle tip position by utilising the physical properties of tissues, (e.g. pressure, electrical, optics, acoustic and elastic). Although most are at the laboratory stage and results are as yet only available from phantom or cadaver studies, clinical trials are imminent. For example, fine optical fibres placed within the lumen of block needles can measure needle tip pressure. Electrical impedance differentiates between intraneural and perineural needle tip placement. A new tip tracker needle has a piezo element embedded at its distal end that tracks the needle tip in-plane and out-of-plane as a blue/red or green circle depending on its relative location within the beam. Micro-ultrasound at the tip of the needle is in development. Early images using 40MHz in anaesthetised pigs reveal muscle striation, distinct epineurium and 30–40 fascicles > 75 micron in diameter. The next few years will see a technological revolution in tip-tracking technology that has the potential to improve patient safety and, in doing so, change practice.
- nerve block