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Digital Nerve Block

If you have a private operation planned, it may involve an anaesthetic procedure, in this instance a digital nerve block. You may wish to know what this involves.
The information here is a guide to common medical practice. Each hospital and doctor will have slightly different ways of doing things, so you should follow their guidance where it is different from the information given here. Because all patients, conditions and treatments vary it cannot cover everything. Use this information when making your treatment choices with your doctors. You should mention any worries you have. Remember that you can ask for more information at any time.


What is the problem?

You have a condition that requires an operation on your finger or toe. A digital nerve block is a type of anaesthetic that can be used for this. It can be used instead of going to sleep (general anaesthetic). It can also be used as well as a general anaesthetic; it will provide pain relief during and after the operation.


What is a digital nerve block?

Digit refers to a finger or toe; hence the name digital. A digital nerve block is an injection of local anaesthetic into the base of a finger or toe. This is one of many types of nerve block.

Digital nerve block


This particular nerve block is usually used as part of a general anaesthetic for an operation in the foot or hand. In this case you will be asleep for the nerve block. If the block is instead of a general anaesthetic, you will be awake or sedated (sleepy).


The block usually lasts for several hours, so that the digit will be numb and feel heavy during this time. One advantage of the block is that it reduces the amount of other strong painkillers, such as morphine, needed during and after the operation.


The aims


The aim is that you feel no pain during the operation. The block will provide pain relief during the operation and for several hours afterwards. Your anaesthetist will talk to you before doing the block and explain whether you will be awake, asleep or sedated for your operation.


The benefits


There are a number of benefits. You may have other serious medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease. In this case a general anaesthetic may have slightly more risk than normal. Having the block, instead of a general anaesthetic will cause less stress to your medical condition and be safer.


It is common to perform a digital nerve block as well as a general anaesthetic. This gives excellent pain relief both during and after surgery. This means that the anaesthetist does not need to give as much anaesthetic or strong painkillers. This means a faster recovery and less sickness after the operation.


Are there any alternatives?


There are several alternatives to a digital nerve block. These are all listed below. The problem is that they all have additional risks involved. It may not be reasonable to expose you to these risks. For example, it is not reasonable to have a full general anaesthetic to remove a small skin tag. This is a tiny flap of skin less than a fingernail in size. This should be easy to do with local anaesthetic and sedation.


  • General anaesthetic: You can have a general anaesthetic, where you are completely asleep throughout, but without the digital nerve block. Other strong painkillers, such as morphine, can be given to keep you comfortable when you wake up.

  • Epidural: It may be possible to perform an epidural where the lower part of the body goes numb and is pain free. This involves placing a plastic tube next to the nerves in the spine, so that drugs can be injected, making the nerves stop working temporarily. This is a more risky procedure for a small operation on the foot, for instance. 

  • Spinal: Alternatively a single injection, like an epidural, but without putting the plastic tube in, can be used. This single injection is called a spinal. It does not last as long as an epidural. This is also a more risky procedure for a small operation. 

  • Regional anaesthetic: Another method is to make individual nerves go numb temporarily. This could be your whole arm or leg. This makes a small region of the body numb, hence the name ‘regional anaesthetic’. 

  • Hypnosis: More recently, some patients have used hypnosis to help them during an operation. Very few people can tolerate operations with hypnosis alone, but it may assist with the relief of anxiety, when used with other nerve blocking methods.


Whether any of these alternatives are suitable, depends on the part of the body to be operated on. The length of the procedure is also important. All of these injection methods can be used with sedation into a vein to help relieve anxiety.


If you are to have one of these procedures there is another information leaflet that will tell you more about it.


Who should have it done?


Patients needing surgery on the fingers or toes can have this type of anaesthetic for their operation.


Who should not have it done?


Each patient has the final decision to proceed or not. If you are unhappy about the procedure for any reason, you should not continue. There are specific medical situations when a digital nerve block should not be done and they are as follows:


  • Medication that prevents your blood from clotting, such as Warfarin; this would lead to more bleeding than normal.

  • An illness that prevents your blood from clotting, such as haemophilia; this would lead to more bleeding than normal.

  • Infection of the skin over the site where the needle needs to be put in; this could lead to further infection in the deeper tissues and possibly blood poisoning. This could also cause infection around the nerves.

  • Unusual or difficult anatomy; this would make it difficult to put the needle in the correct place.



Author: Dr Sean White FRCA. Consultant in pain and anaesthesia

© Dumas Ltd 2006

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