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Year : 2009  |  Volume : 53  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 641-648 Table of Contents     

Regional & Topical Anaesthesia of Upper Airways

1 .
2 Professor, Department of Anaesthesiology, SCB Medical College, Cuttak-753007, Orissa, India
3 P G Student, Department of Anaesthesiology, SCB Medical College, Cuttak-753007, Orissa, India

Date of Web Publication3-Mar-2010

Correspondence Address:
Nibedita Pani

Nibedita Pani
Nibedita Pani, Department of Anaesthesiology, SCB Medical College, Cuttak-753007, Orissa
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

PMID: 20640090

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A combination of techniques are required to adequately anaesthetise upper airway structures for awake intubation . The widest coverage is provided by the inhalational technique. This technique, however, does not always provide a dense enough level of anaesthesia for all patients. Supplementation of this technique with any of the specific nerve blocks is an excellent way to accomplish efficacious anaesthesia for awake inubation. Anaesthetising upper airway is not a difficult skill to master and should be in the armamentarium of all practising anaesthetist.

Keywords: Awake intubation, Fibre optic intubation, Laryngoscopy, Topical anaesthesia, Local anaesthetics, Nerve block

How to cite this article:
Pani N, Rath SK, Pani N, Rath SK. Regional & Topical Anaesthesia of Upper Airways. Indian J Anaesth 2009;53:641-8

How to cite this URL:
Pani N, Rath SK, Pani N, Rath SK. Regional & Topical Anaesthesia of Upper Airways. Indian J Anaesth [serial online] 2009 [cited 2021 Apr 13];53:641-8. Available from: https://www.ijaweb.org/text.asp?2009/53/6/641/60237

   Introduction Top

Airway management is fundamental to the prac­tice of anaesthesia and tracheal intubation is frequently required to ensure adequate airway control, while pro­viding optimal operating conditions. Intubation by di­rect laryngoscopy is usually satisfactory. However, pro­viding anaesthetic care to the patient with a difficult air­way keenly interests anaesthesiologists. Expertise with regional anaesthesia of the airway allows intubation in awake patients with suspected difficult intubation in the presence of certain anatomical variants or airway pa­thology, where visualization of the glottis by direct laryn­goscopy can be difficult or impossible. Furthermore, in the presence of upper airway trauma& cervical spine injury, neck movement must be minimized if neurologi­cal injury is to be avoided. Therefore, it is essential that every regional anaesthesiologist be skilled enough to administer general anaesthesia and especially in the management of the difficult airway with the knowledge of recent development in the field of regional anaesthe­sia of the upper airways.

The mainstay of difficult airway management re­mains flexible fiberoptic laryngobronchoscopic intuba­tion. In the awake patient fibreoptic intubation main­tains a wide margin of safety while producing minimal patient discomfort, but requires adequate local anaes­thesia of the airway. Fibreoptic intubation (FOI) is re­garded as a safe way of managing some airway prob­lems, particularly anticipated difficulty with direct laryn­goscopy [1],[2],[3] . Several authors have reported that FOI can be achieved with considerable haemodynamic stability [4],[5],[6] under local anaesthetic when combined with sedation.

Laryngobronchoscopy in an awake, unprepared patient lead to undesirable elevations in the patient's sympathetic and parasympathetic outflow causing ex­cessive salivation and gag and cough reflexes making intubation difficult, To decide on a proper approach to an awake intubation, one must determine what struc­tures need to be anaesthetized along the two basic routes of intubation (oral or nasal) to facilitate optimal surgical conditions in the context of patient-specific anatomic considerations. Each of these routes has a well-defined pattern of innervation that can be specifi­cally blocked to provide adequate anaesthesia to sub­due these reflexes and facilitate intubation.

Although fibreoptic intubation can be done in the unconscious individual, it is particularly suited to the awake patient and, with proper technique, produces minimal discomfort while maintaining a wide margin of safety. [7],[8],[9],[10],11]

   RelevantAnatomy Top

Three major neural pathways supply sensation to airway structures [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

1. Terminal branches of the ophthalmic and maxillary divisions of the trigeminal nerve supply the nasal cavity and turbinates. [Figure 2], [12] (i.e. the greater and lesser palatine nerves arising from the ptery­gopalatine ganglion innervate the nasal turbinates and most of the nasal septum.. The anterior ethmoidal nerve arises from the olfactory nerve (CN I) and innervates the nares and the anterior third of the nasal septum.)

2. The oropharynx and posterior third of the tongue are supplied by the glossopharyngeal nerve.

(The sensory innervation of the anterior two thirds of the tongue is provide by the trigeminal nerve i.e. lin­gual branch of the mandibular division. it is not a part of the reflex arcs controlling gag or cough, its blockade is not essential for comfort during FOI.)

3. Branches of the vagus nerve innervate the epiglottis and more distal airway structures.[Figure 3]

The airway reflexes important for awake intubation

The aforementioned nerves participate in several brainstem-mediated reflex arcs.

1.Gag reflex -
triggered by mechanical and chemical stimulation of areas innervated by the glosso­pharyngeal nerve, and the efferent motor arc is pro­vided by the vagus nerve and its branches to the phar­ynx and larynx.

2.Glottic closure reflex -
elicited by selective stimulation of the superior laryngeal nerve, and efferent arc is the recurrent laryngeal nerve.- exaggeration of this reflex is called laryngospasm.

3.Cough -
the cough receptors located in the lar­ynx and trachea receive afferent and efferent fibers from the vagus nerve.

   Techniques for Anaesthetizing the Airway Top

Even in the hands of the most skilled regional an­esthesiologist, blocks are subject to a certain rate of complications or failure [13],[14],[15],[16] . So Fiberoptic intubation can be performed under a variety of conditions. How­ever, one major decision must be made with every pro­cedure will the patient be intubated while under general anaesthesia, or does the patient need to be awake during intubation? Intubation under general anaesthesia (even with inhalational induction and spontaneous respi­ration) carries the inherent risk of losing control of the difficult airway. For this reason, many anaesthesiologists, on recognition of a difficult airway, elect to perform an awake intubation using either fiber optic laryngobronchoscopy or awake direct laryngoscopy

   Preparation for Awake Intubation Top

Adequate sedation& analgesia is important and advantageous in both the anaesthetizing of the airway as well as during the intubation. Agents used for this purpose are generally fall into 2 group: benzodiaz­epines and opioids. For this purpose, it is best to use short-acting or reversible agents for sedation or agents that do not cause a considerable degree of respiratory depression,i.e midazolam, alfentanil, and fentanyl

Second is Antisialogogues, [17],[18] as oral secretions may make visualization via the fiberoptic equipment difficult and may serve as a barrier to effective pen­etration of local anaesthetic into the mucosa.Glycopyrrolate or atropine may be used [12],[19].

Local anaesthetics

There are three most often used local anaesthetic with or without the use of vasoconstrictors: Cocaine, Benzocaine,& Lidocaine

Local anaesthetics - benzocaine

A water-insoluble ester that is frequently used in a 20% spray to produce anaesthesia in mucous membranes.

Local anaesthetics - lidocaine

Lidocaine is probably the local anaesthetic most frequently used for topical anaesthesia of the airway. Lidocaine 2-4% applied to mucous membranes pro­duces superficial anaesthesia in about one minute. [12],[20] The peak effect occurs within two to five minutes and the duration of action is 30-45min. [21] The maximum safe dosage has generally been considered to be 3-4 mg. kg -1 , although some recommend up to 6 mg./ kg. [20],[22],[23],[24],[25]

Advantages: 1.ready availability; 2.relatively low CNS and cardiac toxicity; 3.quick onset; 4.clinically useful duration of action (30-60 mins for topical appli­cation and 1 to 2 hours after infiltration).


  1. Toxic plasma levels (>5 mcg.ml -1 ) can be reached when moderate amounts of high concentra­tion solutions are used;
  2. Caution must be used in patients with hepatic dysfunction.

Topical anaesthesia

1. Topicalization is the simplest method for an­aesthetizing the airway. Topicalization of the airway is the spreading of local anaesthetic over a region of mu­cosa to achieve local uptake and neural blockade of that region

2. Local anaesthetic can be sprayed 12 directly onto the desired mucosa.[Figure 4] (Pressurized solution of benzocaine, tetracaine, and butamben in a small can­ister, delivers a spray via a long spray nozzle pointed in the desired direction.(being oily its absorbed easily). Alternatively, a 10-mL syringe can be filled with lidocaine 2-4% and sprayed via a small-bore single or multiperforated catheter or the working channel of the fiberoptic bronchoscope.)

3. Nebulization of lidocaine 2-4% via face mask or oral nebulizer for 15-30 minutes can achieve highly effective anaesthesia of the oral cavity and trachea for intubation.[Figure 5]. The major advantage of this tech­nique lies in its simplicity and lack of discomfort. In addition, very little working knowledge of the anatomy of the region is required for its successful implementa­tion

4. Atomization [12],[18] is ideal for airway topicalization during nasotracheal intubations.

5. Density of anaesthesia is variable and often re­quires supplementation to facilitate intubation. Some

patients may have intact cough reflex making intubatiuon difficult. Rate of onset is highly dependant on patient compliance.deep breaths may also lead to CNS de­pression in previously diseased patients.

6. Anaesthetic-soaked cotton pledgets [12],[18],[24].[26],[27] or swabs can be applied to targeted mucosal surfaces for 5-15minutes to effect selective blockade of under­lying nerves. These are soaked in either viscous or aque­ous solutions of local anesthetic.The cotton acts as a reservoir for the anesthetic agent, producing a dense block. This technique is especially effective in the nasal passages. Cotton-tipped swabs soaked in either lidocaine or cocaine and placed superiorly and poste­riorly in the nasopharynx to block the branches of the ethmoidal and trigeminal nerves. Bilateral nasal admin­istration of anaesthetic provides partial posterior pha­ryngeal anaesthesia by affecting the Sphenopalatine nerve fibers, thus diminishing the gag reflex.

7. Vasoconstrictors such as epinephrine (1:200,000) or phenylephrine (0.05%) can be added to the solution to

1. To prolong the duration of nerve blocks

2. Causes mucosal vasoconstriction, which im­proves visualization during the procedure and helps limit bleeding.

Topical nasal vasoconstrictors [28],[29],[30]

1. Neosynephrine

- Adults (~_12 yr): 0.25-0.5%, 2-3 sprays in each nostril

- Children (6-12 yr): 0.25%, 2-3 sprays in each nostril

- Infants (<6 too): 0.16%, i-2 drops in each nos­tril2 Xylometazoline

- Adults: 0.1%, 1-2 sprays or I metered dose spray or 2-3 drops in each nostril

- Children (>6 yr): 0.05%, 1-2 sprays or 2-3 drops in each nostril

- Children (<6 yr): 0.05%, 1 spray or I drop in each nostril


- Adults and children >6 yr: 0.05%, 2-3 sprays or drops in each nostril

- Children (2-5 yr): 0.025%, 2-3 drops in each nostril

8. Gargling often does not cover the larynx or tra­chea adequately.

Techniques for Block Individual Nerves of theAirway

Often more difficult to perform, and carry a higher risk of complications than the above mentioned meth­ods. The common complications of nerve blocks are: bleeding, nerve damage, and intra-vascular injection.

Nerve blocks

There are 3 blocks used for upper airway an­esthesia:

  1. Glossopharyngeal block - for oropharnyx.
  2. Superior laryngeal block - larynx above the cords.
  3. Translaryngeal block - larynx and trachea below the cords.

Blockade of the Glossopharyngeal Nerve

It provides sensory innervation to the posterior third of the tongue, the vallecula, the anterior surface of the epiglottis (lingual branch), the walls of the pharynx (pharyngeal branch), and the tonsils (tonsillar branch) [31]

Facilitates endotracheal intubation by blocking the gag reflex associated with direct laryngoscopy as well as facilitating passage of a nasotracheal tube through the posterior pharynx. Glossopharyngeal nerve block is not adequate as a solo technique to facilitate intuba­tion, but in combination with other techniques it is highly effective.

Blockade of the Glossopharyngeal Nerve

It can be blocked using one of three methods:

  1. Topical spray application,
  2. Direct mucosal contact of soaked pledgets, or
  3. Direct infiltration by injection.

Glossopharyngeal block

There are two way to approach:

1. Intra-oral - need enough mouth opening [Figure 6]

It is most easily blocked Intraorally by instilling 5 mL LA submucosally (by a 22-gaugue needle) at the caudal aspect of the posterior tonsillar pillar (where it crosses the palatoglossal arch).

2. Peristyloid - require the ability to distinguish the bony landmarks [Figure 7]

Patient is placed supine and a line is drawn be­tween the angle of the mandible and the mastoid pro­cess. Using deep pressure, the styloid process is pal­pated just posterior to the angle of the jaw along this line, and a short, small-gauge needle is seated against the styloid process. The needle is then withdrawn slightly and directed posteriorly off the styloid process. As soon as bony contact is lost, 5-7 mL of local anesthetic so­lution are injected after careful aspiration for blood.

For both approaches, careful aspiration for blood must be carried out prior to injection (to prevent inadvertent intra­vascular injection) because the glossopharyngeal nerve is closely associated with the internal carotid a.& palatoglossal arch is highly vascular and even a very small amount of local anesthetic can cause seizures.

Contraindicated in patients with coagulopathies or anticoagulation.

Superior laryngeal block [Figure 8],[Figure 9]

Internal branch [12],[32] (originates from the superior laryngeal nerve lateral to the greater cornu of the hyoid bone. The nerve should pass approximately 2-4 mm inferior to the greater cornu of the hyoid bone. where it pierces the thyrohyoid membrane and travels under the mucosa in the pyriform recess.) innervates the base of the tongue, posterior surface of the epiglottis, aryepig­lottic fold, and the arytenoids [33]

Blockade is usually inadequate as a solo technique for intubation.Thesuperiorlaryngealnervecanbeblockedinthe piriform fossa where it runs just deep to the mucosa by using Kraus or Jackson forceps to hold a cotton pledget soaked in lidocaine 2-4% against the mucosa for about 60 see [12],[24],[26],[27]. Alternatively, this block can be performed using an external approach to the nerve as it penetrates the thyrohyoid mem­branenearthegreatercornuofthehyoid [26],[34] Directinfiltration is accomplished by a 25G needle at the level of the thyrohy­oid membrane inferior to the cornu of the hyoid bone [33],[35] .A reliableblockwithadefiniteendpointiseffectedbyretracting the needle marginally after contacting the greater cornu and injecting2mLofLA(2%lidocaine)afternegativeaspiration in extended neck position.

The hyoid bone can be easily fractured if excess pressure is applied. 2 ml of LA should reliably bathe the internal branch of the superior laryngeal nerve, given at its proximity to the hyoid bone. If this volume is in­jected outside the thyrohyoid membrane, it is likely to block the external branch of the superior laryngeal nerve as well. Isolated external branch blockade may result in cricothyroid muscle weakness, which eliminates its function as an airway dilator.The motor input of the re­current laryngeal nerve is spared, however, and there­fore does not result in clinically significant change in laryngeal inlet diameters.

In case of contraindications, unwillingness or dis­torted anatomy noninvasive blockade can be accom­plished by placing anesthetic-soaked cotton pledgets into the pyriform fossae bilaterally(for 10-15 min).

Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Block [Figure 10]

Recurrent laryngeal nerve provides sensory inner­vation to the trachea and vocal folds. Blockade facili­tates comfortable passing of the endotracheal tube into the trachea.

This nerve can be blocked by using topicalization techniques described previously.

Translaryngeal block of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is easily accomplished at the level of the cricothyroidmembrane. A 10-mL syringe with a 22- or 20-gauge needle is advanced until air is aspirated into the syringe. 4ml of LA (4%lidocaine) are then injected, inducing coughing that disperses the local anesthetic.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve can also be blocked by spraying local anesthetic via the injection port of the fiberoptic bronchoscope. Motor function remains completely unaffected. Direct infiltration of recurrent laryngeal nerve is contraindicated as it may cause up­per airway obstruction since all motor supply to larynx except cricothyroid is by recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Blockade of the Palatine Nerves

Nasal intubation requires blockade of the nasal passages.

Blockade of the greater and lesser palatine nerves blocks sensation to the nasal turbinates and posterior two thirds of the nasal septum. Topicalization of these structures is typically effective for intubation. Alterna­tively, the pterygopalatine ganglion can be blocked by passing a local anaesthetic-soaked cotton applicator along the upper border of the middle turbinate to the posterior wall of the nasopharynx, where it is left for 5-10 minutes. Transoral and percutaneous approaches to the pterygopalatine ganglion can be accomplished, but technical difficulty and an increased potential for complications preclude their routine use. [36]

Blockade of the Anterior Ethmoid Nerve

The anterior ethmoid nerve innervates the remain­der of the nasal passage. Anesthetic soaked cotton applicator is passed along the dorsal surface of the nose until the anterior cribiform plate is reached to achieve selective blockade after 5-10 minutes.

Theoretically, in high-risk situations, administra­tion of local anaesthesia to the larynx and trachea may predispose to aspiration by obtunding protective air­way reflexes. [27],[34] However, these techniques have been used in these circumstances without associated aspira­tion, [30],[37],[38] and the relative risk must be weighed against those associated with other airway management mo­dalities. A common sense approach using good clinical judgement is mandatory

A combination of techniques is required to ad­equately anaesthetise upper airway structures for awake intubation . The widest coverage is provided by the inhalational technique. This technique, however, does not always provide a dense enough level of anaesthe­sia for all patients. Supplementation of this technique with any of the specific nerve blocks is an excellent way to accomplish efficacious anaesthesia for awake inubation [39] by laryngoscopic or fiberoptic method [40].

   References Top

1.Benumof J. Management of the difficult adult airway. With special emphasis on awake tracheal intubation. Anesthesiology 1991; 75:1087-110.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Popat M. State of the art. The airway. Anaesthesia 2003; 58:1166-72.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.An Updated Report by the ASA Task Force on Man­agement of the Difficult Airway. Practice guidelines for the management of the difficult airway. Anesthesiology 2003; 98: 1269-77.  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.Ovassapian A, Yelich SJ, Dykes MHM, Brunner EE. Blood pressure and heart rate changes during awake fibreoptic nasotracheal intubation.Anesth Analg 1983; 62: 951-4.  Back to cited text no. 4      
5.Sutherland AD, Williams RT. Cardiovascular responses and lidocaine absorption in fiberoptic-assisted awake intubation. Anesth Analg 1986; 65: 389-91.  Back to cited text no. 5      
6.Hawkyard SJ, Morrison A, Doyle LA, Croton RS, Wake PN.Attenuating the hypertensive response to laryngos­copy and endotracheal intubation using awake fibreoptic intubation. Acta Anaesthesiol Scan 1992; 36: 1-4.  Back to cited text no. 6      
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8.Ovassapian A, Yelich S J, Dykes MHM, Brunner EE. Blood pressure and heart rate changes during awake fiberoptic nasotracheal intubation. Anesth Analg 1983; 62:951-4.  Back to cited text no. 8      
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26.Reed AP, Han DG. Preparation of the patient for awake fiberoptic intubation. Anesthesiology Clinics of North America 1991; 9: 69-81.  Back to cited text no. 26      
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29.Hill 1-1, Calder/. Safer fibreoptic intubation (Letter).Anaesthesia 1988; 43: 1062.  Back to cited text no. 29      
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31.Netter F: Atlas of Human Anatomy. Ciba-Geigy Corpo­ration, 1989, Plate 56.  Back to cited text no. 31      
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33.Netter F: Atlas of Human Anatomy. Ciba-Geigy Corpo­ration, 1989, Plates 37-40.  Back to cited text no. 33      
34.Gotta AW, Sullivan CA. Superior laryngeal nerve block: an aid to intubating the patient with fractured mandible. J Trauma 1984; 24: 83-5.  Back to cited text no. 34      
35.Wheatley JR, Brancatisano A, Engel LA: Respiratory­related activity of cricothyroid muscle in awake normal humans. J Appl Physiol 1991;70:2226-2232.  Back to cited text no. 35      
36.Reasoner DK, Warner DS, Todd MM, et al: A compari­son of anesthetic techniques for awake intubation in neurosurgical patients. J Neurosurg Anesthesiol 1995;7:94-99.  Back to cited text no. 36      
37.Kopman AF, Wallman SB, Ross K, Surks SN. Awake endotracheal intubation: a review of 267 cases. Anesth Analg 1975; 54: 323-7.  Back to cited text no. 37      
38.Meschino A, Devitt JH, Koch J-P, Szalai JP,, SchwartzML. The safety of awake tracheal intubation in cervicalspine injury. Can J Anaesth 1992; 39:114-7.  Back to cited text no. 38      
39.Reasoner DK, Warner DS, Todd MM, et al: A compari­son of anesthetic techniques for awake intubation in neurosurgical patients. J Neurosurg Anesthesiol 1995;7:94-99.  Back to cited text no. 39      
40.Ovassapian A. Fibreoptic tracheal intubation in adults.In: Ovassapian A (Ed). Fibreoptic Endoscopy and the Dif­ficult Airway, 2 "a ed. New York: Lippincott-Raven.  Back to cited text no. 40      


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9], [Figure 10]


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