Femoral nerve blocks for acute postoperative pain after knee replacement surgery

Total knee replacement is a common and often painful orthopaedic operation. Femoral nerve block (FNB) is an analgesic technique that blocks sensation to the knee to reduce pain following surgery. FNB is given as a single injection or as continuous infusion of numbing medication in the groin area.

This review compared FNB with other common analgesic techniques (patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) with opioids, epidural analgesia, local infiltration analgesia and oral analgesia). A total of 45 randomized trials with 2710 participants were included. Among the included studies, 30 treatment groups compared FNB with PCA opioids, 10 compared FNB with epidural analgesia, five compared FNB with local infiltration analgesia, one compared FNB with oral analgesia and four compared continuous FNB with single-injection FNB. The average methodological quality of the included studies was moderate.

FNB (any type) resulted in less pain at rest and on movement during the first 72 hours after surgery, compared with PCA opioid alone. FNB also resulted in lower opioid consumption, fewer patients with nausea and vomiting, greater knee flexion and higher patient satisfaction, compared with PCA opioid. Additionally, continuous FNB provided better pain relief than was attained with single-injection FNB.

No differences in postoperative pain and opioid consumption at 24 hours were noted between FNB and epidural analgesia, although the former resulted in fewer patients with nausea and vomiting, and higher patient satisfaction was reported with analgesia. Similarly, we found no difference in postoperative pain between participants given FNB as opposed to local infiltration analgesia. Information was insufficient for review authors to conclude on the comparison of FNB with local infiltration analgesia or oral analgesia, or on the safety of the various analgesic techniques.

Authors' conclusions: 

Following TKR, FNB (with or without concurrent treatments including PCA opioid) provided more effective analgesia than PCA opioid alone, similar analgesia to epidural analgesia and less nausea/vomiting compared with PCA alone or epidural analgesia. The review also found that continuous FNB provided better analgesia compared with single-shot FNB. RCTs were insufficient to allow definitive conclusions on the comparison between FNB and local infiltration analgesia or oral analgesia.

Read the full abstract...

Total knee replacement (TKR) is a common and often painful operation. Femoral nerve block (FNB) is frequently used for postoperative analgesia.


To evaluate the benefits and risks of FNB used as a postoperative analgesic technique relative to other analgesic techniques among adults undergoing TKR.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) 2013, Issue 1, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, Web of Science, dissertation abstracts and reference lists of included studies. The date of the last search was 31 January 2013.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing FNB with no FNB (intravenous patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) opioid, epidural analgesia, local infiltration analgesia, and oral analgesia) in adults after TKR. We also included RCTs that compared continuous versus single-shot FNB.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently performed study selection and data extraction. We undertook meta-analysis (random-effects model) and used relative risk ratios (RRs) for dichotomous outcomes and mean differences (MDs) or standardized mean differences (SMDs) for continuous outcomes. We interpreted SMDs according to rule of thumb where 0.2 or smaller represents a small effect, 0.5 a moderate effect and 0.8 or larger, a large effect.

Main results: 

We included 45 eligible RCTs (2710 participants) from 47 publications; 20 RCTs had more than two allocation groups. A total of 29 RCTs compared FNB (with or without concurrent treatments including PCA opioid) versus PCA opioid, 10 RCTs compared FNB versus epidural, five RCTs compared FNB versus local infiltration analgesia, one RCT compared FNB versus oral analgesia and four RCTs compared continuous versus single-shot FNB. Most included RCTs were rated as low or unclear risk of bias for the aspects rated in the risk of bias assessment tool, except for the aspect of blinding. We rated 14 (31%) RCTs at high risk for both participant and assessor blinding and rated eight (18%) RCTs at high risk for one blinding aspect.

Pain at rest and pain on movement were less for FNB (of any type) with or without a concurrent PCA opioid compared with PCA opioid alone during the first 72 hours post operation. Pooled results demonstrated a moderate effect of FNB for pain at rest at 24 hours (19 RCTs, 1066 participants, SMD -0.72, 95% CI -0.93 to -0.51, moderate-quality evidence) and a moderate to large effect for pain on movement at 24 hours (17 RCTs, 1017 participants, SMD -0.94, 95% CI -1.32 to -0.55, moderate-quality evidence). Pain was also less in each FNB subgroup: single-shot FNB, continuous FNB and continuous FNB + sciatic block, compared with PCA. FNB also was associated with lower opioid consumption (IV morphine equivalent) at 24 hours (20 RCTs, 1156 participants, MD -14.74 mg, 95% CI -18.68 to -10.81 mg, high-quality evidence) and at 48 hours (MD -14.53 mg, 95% CI -20.03 to -9.02 mg), lower risk of nausea and/or vomiting (RR 0.47, 95% CI 0.33 to 0.68, number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) four, high-quality evidence), greater knee flexion (11 RCTs, 596 participants, MD 6.48 degrees, 95% CI 4.27 to 8.69 degrees, moderate-quality evidence) and greater patient satisfaction (four RCTs, 180 participants, SMD 1.06, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.38, low-quality evidence) compared with PCA.

We could not demonstrate a difference in pain between FNB (any type) and epidural analgesia in the first 72 hours post operation, including pain at 24 hours at rest (six RCTs, 328 participants, SMD -0.05, 95% CI -0.43 to 0.32, moderate-quality evidence) and on movement (six RCTs, 317 participants, SMD 0.01, 95% CI -0.21 to 0.24, high-quality evidence). No difference was noted at 24 hours for opioid consumption (five RCTs, 341 participants, MD -4.35 mg, 95% CI -9.95 to 1.26 mg, high-quality evidence) or knee flexion (six RCTs, 328 participants, MD -1.65, 95% CI -5.14 to 1.84, high-quality evidence). However, FNB demonstrated lower risk of nausea/vomiting (four RCTs, 183 participants, RR 0.63, 95% CI 0.41 to 0.97, NNTH 8, moderate-quality evidence) and higher patient satisfaction (two RCTs, 120 participants, SMD 0.60, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.97, low-quality evidence), compared with epidural analgesia.

Pooled results of four studies (216 participants) comparing FNB with local infiltration analgesia detected no difference in analgesic effects between the groups at 24 hours for pain at rest (SMD 0.06, 95% CI -0.61 to 0.72, moderate-quality evidence) or pain on movement (SMD 0.38, 95% CI -0.10 to 0.86, low-quality evidence). Only one included RCT compared FNB with oral analgesia. We considered this evidence insufficient to allow judgement of the effects of FNB compared with oral analgesia.

Continuous FNB provided less pain compared with single-shot FNB (four RCTs, 272 participants) at 24 hours at rest (SMD -0.62, 95% CI -1.17 to -0.07, moderate-quality evidence) and on movement (SMD -0.42, 95% CI -0.67 to -0.17, high-quality evidence). Continuous FNB also demonstrated lower opioid consumption compared with single-shot FNB at 24 hours (three RCTs, 236 participants, MD -13.81 mg, 95% CI -23.27 to -4.35 mg, moderate-quality evidence).

Generally, the meta-analyses demonstrated considerable statistical heterogeneity, with type of FNB, allocation concealment and blinding of participants, personnel and outcome assessors reducing heterogeneity in the analyses. Available evidence was insufficient to allow determination of the comparative safety of the various analgesic techniques. Few RCTs reported on serious adverse effects such as neurological injury, postoperative falls or thrombotic events.