The use of ultrasound guidance for regional anaesthesia has become popular over the past two decades. However, it is not recognized by all experts as an essential tool. The cost of an ultrasound machine is substantially higher than the cost of other tools such as a nerve stimulator.
To determine whether ultrasound guidance offers any clinical advantage when neuraxial and peripheral nerve blocks are performed in children in terms of increasing the success rate or decreasing the rate of complications.
We searched the following databases to March 2015: Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE (OvidSP), EMBASE (OvidSP) and Scopus (from inception to 27 January 2015).
We included all parallel randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that evaluated the effects of ultrasound guidance used when a regional blockade technique was performed in children, and that included any of our selected outcomes.
We assessed selected studies for risk of bias by using the assessment tool of The Cochrane Collaboration. Two review authors independently extracted data. We graded the level of evidence for each outcome according to the GRADE (Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation) Working Group scale.
We included 20 studies (1241 participants) for which the source of funding was a government organization (two studies), a charitable organization (one study), an institutional department (four studies) or an unspecified source (11 studies); two studies declared that they received help from the industry (equipment loan). In 14 studies (939 participants), ultrasound guidance increased the success rate by decreasing the occurrence of a failed block: risk difference (RD) -0.11 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.17 to -0.05); I(2) = 64%; number needed for additional beneficial outcome for a peripheral nerve block (NNTB) 6 (95% CI 5 to 8). Blocks were performed under general anaesthesia (usual clinical practice in this population); therefore, haemodynamic changes to the surgical stimulus (rather than classic sensory/motor blockade evaluation) were used to define success. For peripheral nerve blocks, the younger the child, the greater was the benefit. In eight studies (414 participants), pain scores at one hour in the post-anaesthesia care unit were reduced when ultrasound guidance was used; however, the clinical relevance of the difference was unclear (equivalent to -0.2 on a scale from 0 to 10). In eight studies (358 participants), block duration was longer when ultrasound guidance was used: standardized mean difference (SMD) 1.21 (95% CI 0.76 to 1.65; I(2) = 73%; equivalent to 62 minutes). Here again, younger children benefited most from ultrasound guidance. Time to perform the procedure was reduced when ultrasound guidance was used for pre-scanning before a neuraxial block (SMD -1.97, 95% CI -2.41 to -1.54; I(2) = 0%; equivalent to 2.4 minutes; two studies with 122 participants) or as an out-of-plane technique (SMD -0.68, 95% CI -0.96 to -0.40; I(2) = 0%; equivalent to 94 seconds; two studies with 204 participants). In two studies (122 participants), ultrasound guidance reduced the number of needle passes required to perform the block (SMD -0.90, 95% CI -1.27 to -0.52; I(2) = 0%; equivalent to 0.6 needle pass per participant). For two studies (204 participants), we could not demonstrate a difference in the incidence of bloody puncture when ultrasound guidance was used for neuraxial blockade, but we found that the number of participants was well below the optimal information size (RD -0.07, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.04). No major complications were reported for any of the 1241 participants. We rated the quality of evidence as high for success, pain scores at one hour, block duration, time to perform the block and number of needle passes. We rated the quality of evidence as low for bloody punctures.
Ultrasound guidance seems advantageous, particularly in young children, for whom it improves the success rate and increases the block duration. Additional data are required before conclusions can be drawn on the effect of ultrasound guidance in reducing the rate of bloody puncture.