Public Release: 

Anesthetic technique improves quality of recovery for women having breast cancer surgery

St. Michael's Hospital


IMAGE:  "This is the first study to show how effective these ultrasound-guided blocks can now be for breast cancer surgery. Even more importantly, we've been able to demonstrate that blocks help... view more

Credit: St. Michael's Hospital

TORONTO, March 11, 2014 - Anesthesiologists using a technique similar to a dental freeze can improve the quality of recovery and decrease recovery time for breast cancer surgery patients, according to a new study.

The study, from researchers at St. Michael's Hospital and Women's College Hospital, was published in the March edition of Anesthesiology. It is the world's first randomized control trial for breast cancer surgery that compares the use of ultrasound-guided paravertebral blocks - a local anesthetic freezing that blocks breast nerves - to general anesthetic. The findings reveal that breast cancer patients who received local anesthetic had superior pain relief, spent less time in recovery rooms after surgery, and were discharged an hour earlier than patients who were put under general anesthesia.

"Real time, image-guided ultrasound nerve blocks have revolutionized the practice of regional anesthesia," said Dr. Faraj Abdallah, an anesthesiologist at St. Michael's Hospital and lead author of the study. "This is the first study to show how effective these ultrasound-guided blocks can now be for breast cancer surgery. Even more importantly, we've been able to demonstrate that blocks help patients feel better and return to their normal levels of mental and physical functionality sooner after surgery."

Dr. Abdallah conducted this randomized controlled trial of 64 women at Women's College Hospital, the first Canadian site to complete a study where this image-guided technique was used in breast cancer surgery. Because of its demonstrated benefits and the addition of Dr. Abdallah, St. Michael's Hospital is working on incorporating this technique into practice in its CIBC Breast Centre.

The paravertebral block technique uses ultrasound to precisely guide a needle to intercostal nerves reaching the breast and deliver local anesthetic to freeze these nerves. In total, five blocks are needed to freeze the five nerves involved. The freeze blocks the transmission of pain from the breast where surgeons can perform full or partial mastectomies, or even reconstructive breast surgery. At the same time, patients are given an intravenous drug called propofol which allows them to sleep through the surgery and continue breathing on their own, without needing a breathing tube or a ventilator.

"There is a global interest in avoiding general anesthesia in breast cancer surgery whenever possible because of potential long-term effects. Although effective, general anesthesia use is also associated with nausea, vomiting and can result in excessive sedation even after surgery," said Dr. Tulin Cil, a study co-author and general surgeon at Women's College Hospital. "Patients who receive general anesthesia also require extra help to look after themselves in the first few days after surgery, whereas patients who received the nerve blocks are much more independent and require less support."

In the past, paravertebral blocks were inserted "blindly" - without the use of guided ultrasound - and, not surprisingly, with a high failure rate.

"Without ultrasound it may take several attempts to administer the blocks," said Dr. Abdallah. "And even then, it would be difficult to tell if they'd hit their mark so patients might feel pain during surgery and would then need to be put under general anesthetic, which defeats the purpose."

Dr. Abdallah said that the benefits of paravertebral blocks following breast cancer surgery would also apply to cosmetic breast surgeries such as reductions or augmentation because the same breast nerves can be frozen in a similar manner.


This study was supported by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care's Alternate Funding Plan Innovation Fund.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael's Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital's recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Abdallah, contact:

Geoff Koehler
Media Relations Adviser
St. Michael's Hospital
416-864-6060 ext. 6537

To arrange an interview with either Dr. Cil or a patient, contact:

Julie Saccone
Director, Marketing & Communications
Women's College Hospital
416 323-6400 ext. 4054

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