When a veterinarian performs a lameness examination, he or she often will use nerve blocks to try and determine the location of the problem. The areas are "blocked" so that they become numb to pain, revealing which structures are involved in causing lameness.

In the equine lower limb, there are two distinct sets of peripheral nerves: sensory (afferent) nerves and motor (efferent) nerves. The motor nerves conduct information from the brain and spinal cord to the limbs and cause the muscles to move the limbs. The sensory nerves conduct information like pain, pressure, and temperature from the limbs to the spinal cord and brain. Sensory nerves originate in the hoof and gather information as they ascend toward the spinal cord (Figure 1). They also conduct information from areas on the limb that are clearly described and very repeatable from horse to horse. With this in mind, equine veterinarians are able to perform diagnostic nerve blocks with local anesthetics.

Analgesia of these nerves can selectively eliminate or "block" portions of the limb from sending sensations of pain to the brain. A horse with a lameness is considered to have "blocked sound" when the lameness that was seen originally is eliminated by local anesthesia. Using this principle, veterinarians are able to identify the specific location on the limb responsible for the horse's pain and subsequent lameness. Therapies can be directed to exact locations and lamenesses can be resolved.

Local Anesthetics

Local anesthetics are drugs that block the nerves' ability to conduct a nerve impulse. In addition, these anesthetics are effective only at the specific location where they were deposited, leaving the proximal aspect of the nerve to function normally. Therefore, they interfere with the sensory nerves' ability to transmit information that a given area is painful (analgesia).

Two types of local anesthetic agents are commonly used for diagnostic analgesia in equine practice--mepivacaine and lidocaine. These drugs have a rapid onset of action (five minutes from injection to onset), good efficacy, long duration of action (1.5 to two hours of duration of analgesia), and very few side effects other than transient swelling in the area of the injection.

Technique

Because sedation will usually change or eliminate a horse's lameness, patient restraint is often performed only with a twitch on the nose. For diagnostic blocks of peripheral nerves, the hair over the area of interest does not need to be removed. The area should be thoroughly cleaned with an antiseptic preparation like povidone--iodine scrub and isopropyl alcohol.

With the patient standing and the foot either elevated or on the ground, the needle is detached from the syringe and inserted through skin. The skin will elevate and form a bleb as the anesthetic is deposited in the subcutaneous space. Veterinarians typically wait 15 minutes to evaluate the quality of the nerve block. An effective nerve block will not elicit a painful response from the horse as the anesthetized area is pricked by a needle or a ball point pen.

The majority of lamenesses seen in the horse can be eliminated by four principal nerve blocks (Figure 1). Therefore, only these nerve blocks and the areas that they anesthetize will be reviewed. During a proper lameness examination, the blocks listed in Figure 1 are performed in ascending order from a to d, or until the lameness is eliminated.

Palmar Digital Nerve Block

The palmar digital nerve block (Figure 1, location a) can be performed in two locations: 1) the mid-pastern region in front of the deep digital flexor tendon; or 2) behind the pastern and above the proximal border of the lateral cartilage. After the area is prepared, using a 22 or 25 gauge, one-inch needle, 2-3 mls of local anesthetic are placed over both the medial and lateral palmar digital nerves. When performed properly, the sensation over the bulbs of the heel should be eliminated, but not over the front of the coronet band. This block provides analgesia to the back of the foot and includes the following areas: the heel bulbs, frog, bars, navicular bone and bursa, palmar aspect of the coffin bone and joint, and part of the second phalanx (short pastern bone).

Abaxial Sesamoid Nerve Block

The abaxial sesamoid nerve block is performed on the outside edges of the sesamoid bones (Figure 1, location b) above the fetlock joint where the medial and lateral palmar nerve divides. This block anesthetizes the palmar digital nerves and their dorsal branches. These nerves can be easily palpated on the back of the sesamoid bones. Using a 22 or 25 gauge, one-inch needle, 5 mls of local anesthetic are placed over both the medial and lateral palmar nerves. When performed properly, the skin sensation over the bulbs of the heel and the dorsal coronet band should be absent.

This block provides analgesia to everything below the fetlock joint (i.e., the foot, second phalanx and pastern joint, and first phalanx). When this block is performed after a palmar digital nerve block did not block lameness, and the lameness is eliminated, the lameness can be isolated to a site below the fetlock joint but above the back of the foot.

Low Palmar Nerve Block

The low palmar nerve block (or "low four-point block") is performed at the distal aspect of the splint bones (Figure 1, location c). In a standing horse, using a 22 gauge, one-inch needle, 5 mls of local anesthetic are deposited over each of four nerves. At the bottom of the splint bone, anesthetic is injected over the medial and lateral palmar metacarpal nerves, and just in front of the deep digital flexor tendon to anesthetize the medial and lateral palmar nerves (Figure 1, location c). When properly performed, the low four-point block anesthetizes the skin and all structures distal to the fetlock joint, and the distal aspect of the cannon bone, flexor tendons, tendon sheaths, and proximal sesamoid bones.

High Palmar Nerve Block

The high palmar nerve block (or "high four-point block") is very similar to the low palmar nerve block, and it is performed above the communicating branch of the medial and lateral palmar nerves (Figure 1, location d). In the standing horse, using a 22 gauge, one-inch needle over each of the four nerves, 5 mls of local anesthetic are injected. The medial and lateral palmar nerves are located just in front of the deep digital flexor tendon, and the medial and lateral palmar metacarpal nerves are located on the back surface of the cannon bone (Figure 2, section C). A bleb will not form under the skin when performing this block because of the dense tissue layers associated with the back of the carpus.

This block anesthetizes the same areas as the low four-point block and includes the skin and deep structures on the back of the cannon bone (i.e., flexor tendons, the ligament that attaches the splint bones to the cannon bone, and the suspensory ligament, excluding its origin).

High Palmar Nerve Block at the Accessory Carpal Bone

Because the high four-point block does not anesthetize the top of the cannon bone or the origin of the suspensory ligament, two additional diagnostic nerve blocks were developed--the high suspensory block and the high palmar nerve block at the accessory carpal bone.

The high suspensory block is performed in the standing horse with the carpus flexed. Using a 20 gauge, one-inch needle, 20 mls of local anesthetic are injected from medial to lateral just superficial to the top of the suspensory ligament (Figure 2, section B). During further investigation, it was determined that extensions of the lower carpal joint were inadvertently anesthetized in 37% of the cases when using technique B, 17% of the cases when using technique C, and 0% of the cases when using technique A (Figure 2).

When performing the high palmar nerve block at the accessory carpal bone (section A), the carpus is flexed, a 25 gauge, one-inch needle is inserted to the hub, and 5 mls of local anesthetic are injected at the level of the distal accessory carpal bone. Injection at this site anesthetizes the lateral palmar nerve before it divides to become the lateral and medial palmar metacarpal nerve. This nerve block replaces three of the four blocks in the high four-point block (section A, Figure 2). In addition, the medial palmar nerve is anesthetized as described in the high four-point block, in front of the deep digital flexor tendon.

When properly performed, the high palmar nerve block at the accessory carpal bone anesthetizes all structures distal to carpus, including the origin of suspensory, but does not anesthetize the lower carpal joints.

About the Author

John Peloso, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS

John G. Peloso, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, is owner and surgeon of Equine Medical Center of Ocala in Fla.

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