Ultrasound in Emergency Medicine| Volume 58, ISSUE 6, e237-e241, June 2020

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Case Study of Phrenic Nerve Paralysis: “I Can't Breathe!”



      The anatomic course of the phrenic nerve runs in the fascia covering the anterior scalene muscle. Interscalene blocks are commonly performed by an anesthesiologist for shoulder surgery, such as a rotator cuff repair, total shoulder replacement, humeral fracture, or other arm surgery. Phrenic nerve palsy or paralysis is a known complication from interscalene block and is covered in multiple case reports and series in both Anesthesia and Neurosurgical literature, but only one case report in the Emergency Medicine literature.

      Case Report

      This case involves a 57-year-old man who had an uncomplicated arthroscopic rotator cuff repair with placement of interscalene block under care of anesthesia. He was discharged with a pain pump in place and then subsequently presented to the Emergency Department (ED) later that same day for evaluation of dyspnea. Using point-of-care ultrasound, his right diaphragm did not appear to be moving. Chest x-ray study revealed an elevated right hemidiaphragm. He was diagnosed with iatrogenic right phrenic nerve paralysis from interscalene block.

      Why Should an Emergency Physician Be Aware of This?

      Emergent diagnosis of phrenic nerve paralysis in the ED is complicated by a distressed patient and need for quick intervention. Most formal tests for this diagnosis are not immediately available to emergency physicians. Ultrasound is a rapid and reproducible, noninvasive resource with high sensitivity and specificity, making it an ideal imaging modality for the emergent evaluation of possible phrenic nerve palsy or paralysis.


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