Learning About a Sympathetic Nerve Block

The spinal cord

What is a sympathetic nerve block?

A sympathetic nerve block is an injection of medicine around nerves in your neck or back to help long-term (chronic) pain.

Sympathetic nerves spread out from your spine. They control some of the body functions you have no control over, like blood flow and digestion. They also carry pain signals. When this system isn't working right, such as after an injury, you can have chronic pain.

These nerves come together in groups called ganglions throughout your body. This is where the nerve block is done. Your doctor will decide which group of nerves needs this treatment. This nerve block is used for problems such as chronic regional pain syndrome and pain from some types of cancer.

The nerve block contains anesthetic, which numbs the nerves. It may also contain a steroid, which may reduce swelling and pain. Anesthetics usually work right away. Steroids take a few days.

How is a sympathetic nerve block done?

First the doctor will use a tiny needle to numb the skin. Then he or she puts the nerve block needle into the numbed area. Your doctor may use X-rays or ultrasound to help guide the needle. You may feel some pressure. But you should not feel pain.

The procedure takes 30 to 60 minutes.

You will probably go home about an hour after the injection.

You will need someone to drive you home.

What can you expect after a sympathetic nerve block?

Sympathetic nerve blocks don't always work. If it does work, you may feel pain relief right away. Sometimes the pain returns after the anesthetic wears off.

If your nerve block included a steroid, it may take a few days to relieve the pain.

You may want to do less than normal for a few days. Or you may be able to return to your daily routine. Pain relief can last for several days to a few months or longer. For some people, relief is permanent. But in most cases, the block will need to be repeated.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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