SAN ANTONIO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) A new pain relief option for multiple rib fractures means that you might not have to wait around anymore for anesthesiology to place thoracic epidurals.

It’s called posterior paramedian subrhomboidal (PoPS) analgesia. A skin incision is made below the lowest fractured rib just paramedian to the spinus processes; a tunneling device is then used to work a catheter upwards under the rhomboids just past the highest fractured rib. The catheter has multiple openings along its length – like a sprinkler hose – so analgesic bathes the intercostal nerves as it runs down from a reservoir into the patient. The reservoir can be set to a desired flow rate or for on-demand use ( ON-Q Pain Relief System – Halyard).

A pilot study at the University of Kansas, Kansas City, found that pain control from PoPS was at least equivalent to standard thoracic epidural analgesia (TEA), and that the system can be placed by a variety of hospital staff, not just anesthesiologists.

The 11 PoPS patients also used fewer rescue narcotics than the 19 TEA patients and had less hypotension. Because they weren’t at risk for epidural hematomas, they started venous thromboembolism prophylaxis without delay and at full dose.

“Our results are very promising. PoPS provides pain control similar to that of TEA,” with several “other benefits. You are not relying on one specialty for pain control,” so patients probably get faster relief. “PoPS can also be placed in patients whose injuries prohibit TEA, such as those with spinal cord injuries or increased intracranial pressure,” said investigator Dr. Casey Shelley, a University of Kansas general surgery resident.

PoPS was placed in the study either by anesthesiologists or by a trauma surgeon who practiced placement beforehand in the cadaver lab. The do-it-yourself potential for surgeons “is key. Most of us trauma surgeons are sick of begging anesthesiologists to come place thoracic epidurals,” said an audience member after Dr. Shelley’s presentation at the annual scientific assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Ropivacaine 0.2% was used in both PoPS and TEA patients, all of whom had at least three broken ribs.

Median pain scores dropped from 8.5 to 2.5 on a 10-point scale an hour after PoPS placement, versus a median drop from 8 to 5 points an hour after TEA (P = .03). Although not statistically significant, median pain scores were about 1.5 points better with PoPS over the next several days, hovering around 3.5 versus around 5 points with TEA. Anesthesiology “usually won’t place high thoracic epidurals. With PoPS, you can tunnel up as far as you need to go to get to higher ribs,” which might explain the better pain control, Dr. Shelley said.

PoPS patients used about 70 mg/day oral morphine equivalents versus about 90 mg/day with TEA through day 6, but again the difference was not statistically significant. Even so, it might explain why six TEA patients (32%) were hypotensive over that time, compared with two PoPS patients (18%).

PoPS patients were a little older on average (mean 63 versus 55 years), with more fractured ribs (mean eight versus seven), and higher Injury Severity Scale scores (mean 20 versus 16). They were also more likely to have bilateral fractures, longer ICU stays (mean 4.9 versus 3.1 days), and longer overall lengths of stay (mean 14.8 versus 9.8 days), but none of those trends were statistically significant.

Both groups had mean chest Abbreviated Injury Scale scores of 3, and there were no statistical differences in daily spirometry readings. The majority of patients in both groups were men.

Favorable results were also reported in 2010 for ON-Q rib pain control, but the investigators did not compare the system to TEA ( World J Surg. 2010 Oct;34:2359-62 ).

Dr. Shelley said Halyard was not involved in the study, and that she has no disclosures.