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Spinal Anesthesia

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Last Update: June 27, 2022.

Continuing Education Activity

The development of regional anesthesia started with the isolation of local anesthetics, the first being cocaine (the only naturally occurring local anesthetic). The first regional anesthetic technique performed was spinal anesthesia, and the first operation under spinal anesthesia was in 1898 in Germany by August Bier. Before this, the only local anesthetic techniques were topical anesthesia of the eye and infiltration anesthesia. The central nervous system (CNS) comprises the brain and spinal cord. Neuraxial anesthesia refers to the placement of local anesthetic in or around the CNS. Spinal anesthesia is a neuraxial technique in which local anesthetic is placed directly in the intrathecal (subarachnoid) space. This activity reviews the technique, contraindications, and indications of spinal anesthesia and highlights the interprofessional team's role in managing these patients.


  • Identify the technique of spinal anesthesia.
  • Determine the indications of spinal anesthesia.
  • Identify the complications of spinal anesthesia.
  • Communicate the importance of improving care coordination among the interprofessional team to enhance the delivery of care for patients undergoing spinal anesthesia.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


The development of regional anesthesia started with the isolation of local anesthetics, the first being cocaine (the only naturally occurring local anesthetic). The first regional anesthetic technique performed was spinal anesthesia, and the first operation under spinal anesthesia was in 1898 in Germany by August Bier. Before this, the only local anesthetic techniques were topical anesthesia of the eye and infiltration anesthesia. 

The central nervous system (CNS) comprises the brain and spinal cord. Neuraxial anesthesia refers to the placement of local anesthetic in or around the CNS. Spinal anesthesia is a neuraxial technique where local anesthetic is placed directly in the intrathecal (subarachnoid) space. The subarachnoid space houses sterile cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the clear fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. An adult human has roughly 130 to 140 mL of CSF, which continually cycles throughout the day. Approximately 500 mL of CSF is produced daily.

Other neuraxial techniques include epidural and caudal anesthesia, each having its particular indications. Spinal anesthesia is only performed in the lumbar spine and is used for surgical procedures involving the lower abdomen, pelvis, and lower extremities.

Anatomy and Physiology

The administration of spinal anesthesia requires appropriate positioning and understanding of neuraxial anatomy. The goal is to deliver appropriately dosed anesthetic into the intrathecal (subarachnoid) space.

The spine comprises 7 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, and 5 fused sacral vertebral bones. The different vertebral bones earn their names based on their relative positions and structural differences. The vertebrae are stacked end-to-end with articulating joints and ligaments with a hollow space called the spinal canal. This canal houses the spinal cord. The spinal nerves exit the spinal canal via lateral spaces between pedicles from adjacent vertebrae.

As mentioned earlier, spinal anesthesia is only performed in the lumbar area, specifically the mid to low lumbar levels, to avoid damage to the spinal cord and also to prevent intrathecally injected medications from having any activity in the upper thoracic and cervical regions. The caudal end of the spinal cord is the conus medullaris and usually is at the lower border of the first or sometimes the second lumbar vertebral body. It is a little inferior in pediatric patients, generally ending around L3. In the adult population, the mean conus position is the lower third of L1 (range: the middle third of T12 down to the upper third of L3). The variation in conus positions follows a normal distribution. No significant difference in conus position is seen between male and female patients or with increasing age.[1] The dural sac usually extends to S2/3. For these reasons, the insertion of the spinal needle for spinal anesthesia is usually at the L3/4 or L4/5 interspace. Spinal cord trauma is more likely when choosing higher interspaces, especially in obese patients.[2] On entry and starting at the skin, the needle traverses several structures. The structures traversed depend on the approach.

Understanding dermatomal anatomy is imperative for understanding the blockade level of target structures. For example, the incision is usually made below the T10 dermatome for lower abdominal cesarean sections. However, coverage of up to T4 dermatome is required to prevent discomfort or pain from peritoneal tugging, especially with uterine manipulation. Patients complain of "pulling on their inside." Some corresponding dermatomal landmarks are:

  • C8: 5th finger
  • T4. Nipple
  • T7: Xiphoid process
  • T10: Umbilicus


Neuraxial anesthesia is used as a sole anesthetic or in combination with general anesthesia for most procedures below the neck. As mentioned in the introduction, spinal anesthesia is in common use for surgical procedures involving the lower abdomen, pelvis, perineal, and lower extremities; it is beneficial for procedures below the umbilicus.

Patient counseling regarding the procedure must be provided and signed informed consent is necessary. Since the procedure is usually performed on awake or slightly sedated patients, the indication for spinal anesthesia and what to expect during placement of neuraxial, risks, benefits, and alternative procedures are some of the discussions that can help allay anxiety. It is crucial to let patients understand that their ability to move their lower extremities is reduced until the resolution of the block. 

Spinal anesthesia is best for short procedures. For more extended procedures or procedures that would compromise respiration, general anesthesia is usually preferable.


There are major known contraindications to neuraxial anesthesia (spinal and epidural). The absolute contraindications are lack of consent from the patient and elevated intracranial pressure (ICP), primarily due to intracranial mass and infection at the site of the procedure (risk of meningitis).

Relative contraindications are [3][4]:

  • Preexisting neurological diseases (particularly those that wax and wane, eg, multiple sclerosis)
  • Severe dehydration (hypovolemia) due to the risk of hypotension - risk factors for hypotension include hypovolemia, age greater than 40 to 50 years, emergency surgery, obesity, chronic alcohol consumption, and chronic hypertension
  • Thrombocytopenia or coagulopathy (especially with epidural anesthesia due to the risk of epidural hematoma)

Other relative contraindications are severe mitral and aortic stenosis and left ventricular outflow obstruction, as seen with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy. In the setting of coagulopathy, the placement of the neuraxial block requires re-evaluation. The American Society of Regional Anesthesia (ASRA) publishes updated guidelines that detail timing for neuraxial anesthesia for patients on oral anticoagulants, antiplatelets, thrombolytic therapy, unfractionated, and low molecular weight heparin. Review the latest guidelines before proceeding with the procedure. Overall because these are elective procedures, it is imperative to undergo a risk/benefit analysis before proceeding.


Since the performance of neuraxial procedures is under an aseptic technique, the clinician is expected to maintain a sterile environment. Cap, masks, hand wash, and sterile gloves are required. For a successful procedure, adequate preparation is requisite. There should be adequate equipment count and space to accommodate patients and personnel. Monitors should be set up and ready to assess the patient's circulation (blood pressure, continuous EKG), oxygenation (continuous pulse oximetry), and temperature. The clinician performing the process must be proficient in using and interpreting monitors. If planning sedation, means to assist patient ventilation, oxygenation, and circulatory support should be in place. Intravenous access should be established before starting. A certified anesthesiologist should be present if the patient requires general anesthesia.

There are commercially available spinal anesthesia kits. Contents of kits usually include chlorhexidine with alcohol, drape, and local infiltrating anesthetic (usually 1% lidocaine). Other contents include the spinal needle (Quincke, Whitacre, Sprotte, or Greene), 3 mL and 5 mL syringes, and preservative-free spinal anesthetic solution. Solutions may range from lidocaine, ropivacaine, bupivacaine, procaine, or tetracaine.


Spinal anesthesia should only be performed by highly trained and certified medical personnel; this is typically by a board-certified anesthesiologist or anesthesiologist in training under the supervision of an anesthesiologist. Other fellowship-trained spinal anesthesia staff are pain management physicians with training in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), neurology, and emergency medicine. 

Like in any other procedure, an assistant is always helpful. Since the patient's back faces the physician performing the procedure, another staff member is typically present to assist with equipment. The supporting staff also helps support the patient from the ventral side to help them maintain their posture and keep them safe in their position, especially if the patient has undergone sedation.


Before the induction of neuraxial anesthesia, a thorough history and physical examination should take place. Pertinent in history is an understanding of previous exposure to anesthetic medication, a review of allergies, and a family history of any anesthetic problems.

The physical exam generally focuses on the site of spinal anesthesia placement. The back should receive a full examination. A check for systemic or local skin infections, spine abnormalities (eg, scoliosis, spinal stenosis, previous back surgery, spina bifida, history of tethered cord), and the pre-procedural neurological exam for strength and sensation are also crucial for assessment and documentation. A procedural time-out should be performed, confirming the patient's identity, planned procedure, allergy, check for consent, and verbal statement of coagulation status. 

Drugs used:

  • Lidocaine (5%): onset of action occurs in 3 to 5 minutes with a duration of anesthesia that lasts for 60 to 90 minutes
  • Bupivacaine (0.75%): one of the most widely used local anesthetics; onset of action is within 5 to 8 minutes, with a duration of anesthesia that lasts from 90 to 150 minutes
  • Lidocaine 5%
  • Tetracaine 0.5%
  • Mepivacaine 2%
  • Ropivacaine 0.75%
  • Levobupivacaine 0.5%
  • Chloroprocaine 3% [5]

Technique or Treatment

Once the patient has undergone appropriate selection, the optimal patient position for the procedure must be established. The procedure is usually carried out with the patient sitting or lateral decubitus. The patient's comfort is tantamount. Positioning aims to help establish a straight path for needle insertion between the spinal vertebrae. The most commonly used position is the sitting position. This is because the spinal anatomy is usually not laterally symmetrical in the lateral decubitus position as in the sitting position. With the patient positioned in the sitting position and leg hanging from the side of the bed, he/she should be encouraged to maintain a flexed spine position to help open up the interspace. The sitting position is appropriate for spinal anesthesia with a hyperbaric solution. Either left or right lateral decubitus positions are viable options as well.

The access site is identified by palpation after the patient is properly positioned. This is usually very difficult to achieve with obese patients because of the amount of subcutaneous fat between the skin and the spinous process. The space between 2 palpable spinous processes is usually the site of entry. The patient should wear a hat or cover for his/her hair to maintain asepsis. 

A strict aseptic technique is always necessary, achievable with chlorhexidine antiseptics with alcohol content, adequate hand-washing, mask, and cap. Cleaning always starts from the chosen site of approach in circles and then away from the site. Allow time for the cleaning solution to dry. In the spinal kit, the drape placement is on the patient's back to isolate the access area. Local anesthetic (usually about 1 mL of 1% lidocaine) is used for skin infiltration, and a wheal is created at the site of access chosen, either midline or paramedian.

In the midline approach, the spinal approach to the intrathecal space is midline with a straight line shot. After infiltration with lidocaine, the spinal needle is introduced into the skin, angled slightly cephalad. The needle traverses the skin, followed by subcutaneous fat. As the needle courses deeper, it engages the supraspinous and interspinous ligaments; the practitioner notes this as increased tissue resistance. The practitioner approaches the ligamentum flavum, and this would present like a "pop." On popping through this ligament is the approach to the epidural space, which is the point of placement for epidurally administered medications and catheters. This also presents the point where the loss of resistance is felt to the injection of saline or air. For spinal anesthesia, the clinician proceeds with needle insertion until penetration of the dura-subarachnoid membranes, which is signaled by free-flowing CSF. It is at this point that the administration of spinal medication takes place. 

For the paramedian approach, the skin wheal from the local anesthetic is placed about 2 cm from the midline, and the spinal needle advances at an angle toward the midline. In this approach, the supraspinous and interspinous ligaments are usually not encountered. Hence, there is little resistance encountered until reaching the ligamentum flavum.


Appropriate patient selection and care should be established to help obviate common complications associated with neuraxial anesthesia. While many of the complications are of very low incidence, it’s worth being aware of them. Severe complications are believed to be extremely rare, but the frequency is probably underestimated.[6] Some common complications include the following [7][8]:

  • Backache (more common with epidural anesthesia)
  • Postdural puncture headache (as high as 25% in some studies): non-cutting needle should be utilized for patients with a high risk for postdural puncture headaches, and the smallest gauge needle available is recommended for all patients[9]
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Hypotension
  • Low-frequency hearing loss
  • Total spinal anesthesia (most feared complication)
  • Neurological injury
  • Spinal hematoma
  • Arachnoiditis [10]
  • Transient neurological syndrome (especially with lidocaine)

Clinical Significance

Neuraxial anesthesia offers many benefits that are not available with general anesthesia. Neuraxial anesthesia has made it possible to perform many major procedures on an awake patient. For example, cesarian sections can be better and safely performed via neuraxial anesthesia than with general anesthesia, which allows the establishment of bonding between a mother and her neonate to take place immediately.

Neuraxial anesthesia has demonstrated itself as a useful adjunct to general anesthesia. The use of thoracic epidurals as a postoperative pain modality in post-thoracotomy patients has helped to improve patient's respiratory status. Other beneficial effects are better pain control than intravenous narcotics, less need for systemic opioids, earlier recovery of bowel functions, and easier participation in physical therapy.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Neuraxial anesthesia is a beneficial anesthesia modality that has helped with a wide range of surgical procedures. It does come with risks that healthcare providers need to be aware of. Patient selection is critical and should be driven by a careful history and physical examination. The indication for neuraxial anesthesia needs to match the patient's surgical needs. After surgery, the post-op team needs to be aware of the procedure, and the patient needs to be monitored by well-trained personnel. The patient's hemodynamics require monitoring in the immediate post-op period until the resolution of the anesthetic. Healthcare members from other fields managing the patient must be aware of the nature of the patient's anesthesia. 

Upon discharge home, the patient should be able to be contacted by personnel who performed the procedure, and the patient should receive a list of possible complications. The patient should be asked about headaches, backaches, return of bowel and bladder function, and checked for any neurological deficits post-procedure. The patient should be reassured and evaluated regarding any complications that may have resulted. A visit to the anesthesia clinic and appropriate specialist is recommended in the event of any complications.

Review Questions


Saifuddin A, Burnett SJ, White J. The variation of position of the conus medullaris in an adult population. A magnetic resonance imaging study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1998 Jul 01;23(13):1452-6. [PubMed: 9670396]
Broadbent CR, Maxwell WB, Ferrie R, Wilson DJ, Gawne-Cain M, Russell R. Ability of anaesthetists to identify a marked lumbar interspace. Anaesthesia. 2000 Nov;55(11):1122-6. [PubMed: 11069342]
Hartmann B, Junger A, Klasen J, Benson M, Jost A, Banzhaf A, Hempelmann G. The incidence and risk factors for hypotension after spinal anesthesia induction: an analysis with automated data collection. Anesth Analg. 2002 Jun;94(6):1521-9, table of contents. [PubMed: 12032019]
Carpenter RL, Caplan RA, Brown DL, Stephenson C, Wu R. Incidence and risk factors for side effects of spinal anesthesia. Anesthesiology. 1992 Jun;76(6):906-16. [PubMed: 1599111]
Tonder S, Togioka BM, Maani CV. StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; Treasure Island (FL): Jul 17, 2023. Chloroprocaine. [PubMed: 30422496]
Moen V, Dahlgren N, Irestedt L. Severe neurological complications after central neuraxial blockades in Sweden 1990-1999. Anesthesiology. 2004 Oct;101(4):950-9. [PubMed: 15448529]
Halpern S, Preston R. Postdural puncture headache and spinal needle design. Metaanalyses. Anesthesiology. 1994 Dec;81(6):1376-83. [PubMed: 7992906]
Zaric D, Pace NL. Transient neurologic symptoms (TNS) following spinal anaesthesia with lidocaine versus other local anaesthetics. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Apr 15;(2):CD003006. [PubMed: 19370578]
Plewa MC, McAllister RK. StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; Treasure Island (FL): Aug 17, 2023. Postdural Puncture Headache. [PubMed: 28613675]
Chattopadhyay I, Jha AK, Banerjee SS, Basu S. Post-procedure adhesive arachnoiditis following obstetric spinal anaesthesia. Indian J Anaesth. 2016 May;60(5):372-4. [PMC free article: PMC4870960] [PubMed: 27212734]

Disclosure: Abdulquadri Olawin declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Joe Das declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Copyright © 2024, StatPearls Publishing LLC.

This book is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ ), which permits others to distribute the work, provided that the article is not altered or used commercially. You are not required to obtain permission to distribute this article, provided that you credit the author and journal.

Bookshelf ID: NBK537299PMID: 30725984


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