Question 13 from the second paper of 2002 asked to compare PCA and thoracic epidural in the setting of rib fractures. Pain management in chest injuries is also touched upon in the answer to Question 26 from the first paper of 2010, "Outline the relative advantages and disadvantages of thoracic epidural analgesia compared to systemic opioid analgesia via a PCA (Patient Controlled Analgesia)"


Comparison of PCA and Epidural in Management of Multiple Rib Fractures

Thoracic epidural

Systemic opiates via PCA


• Avoidance of sedation
• Less delirium
• Less     risk     of     respiratory depression
• If local anaesthetic used alone, possible to avoid opiate side effects
• Lower incidence of DVT

  • Equivalent to epidural in terms of ICU length of stay and hospital length of stay

Staff very familiar with use
• Can provide good analgesia
• Less problem with hypotension
• Safe
• Could be used in any ICU


  • Requires skill for placement
  • Not   always   effective   (can   get patchy block)
  • Hypotension       may      require excessive fluid administration or pressor support
  • May   mask   other   associated injuries,  e.g.  ruptured  spleen  in this case
  • Risk of epidural haematoma
  • If opiate used in epidural infusion, opiate side effects such as itch, nausea, still a problem.

• Increasing  age  associated  with increasing adverse effects from opiates, especially bowel dysfunction, nausea, drowiness
• Delirium a major potential problem in this patient
• Respiratory depression a potential problem, particularly if background infusion utilised
• Potential for drug interactions

A couple of meta-analysis papers from 2009 both discovered the following key features:

  • There was no mortality difference
  • There was no ICU length of stay difference
  • There was no hospital length of stay difference
  • Epidural was associated with more hypotension
  • PCA was associated with more pneumonia
  • Pain control was better with epidural.

Recent EAST guidelines (Galvagno et al, 2016) make the following recommendations:

  • Use epidural analgesia rather than PCA.
  • Add multimodal analgesia: use different classes of analgesics, including:
    • Opioids
    • NSAIDs
    • pregabalin/gabapentin
    • Paracetamol
  • Avoid using opiates alone


Wu, Christopher L., et al. "Thoracic epidural analgesia versus intravenous patient-controlled analgesia for the treatment of rib fracture pain after motor vehicle crash." Journal of Trauma-Injury, Infection, and Critical Care 47.3 (1999): 564-567.

MACKERSIE, ROBERT C., et al. "Prospective evaluation of epidural and intravenous administration of fentanyl for pain control and restoration of ventilatory function following multiple rib fractures." Journal of Trauma-Injury, Infection, and Critical Care 31.4 (1991): 443-451.

Kieninger, Alicia N., et al. "Epidural versus intravenous pain control in elderly patients with rib fractures." The American journal of surgery 189.3 (2005): 327-330.

Moon, M. Ryan, et al. "Prospective, randomized comparison of epidural versus parenteral opioid analgesia in thoracic trauma." Annals of surgery 229.5 (1999): 684.

Jarvis, Amy M., et al. "Comparison of epidural versus parenteral analgesia for traumatic rib fractures: a meta-analysis." OPUS 12 (2009): 50-57.

Galvagno Jr, Samuel Michael, et al. "Pain management for blunt thoracic trauma: A joint practice management guideline from the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma and Trauma Anesthesiology Society." Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 81.5 (2016): 936-951.