BACKGROUND: The addition of thoracic epidural anesthesia (TEA) to general anesthesia (GA) during cardiac surgery may have a beneficial effect on clinical outcomes. TEA in cardiac surgery, however, is controversial because the insertion of an epidural catheter in patients requiring full heparinization for cardiopulmonary bypass may lead to an epidural hematoma. The clinical effects of fast-track GA plus TEA were compared with those of with fast-track GA alone. METHODS: A randomized controlled trial was conducted in 654 elective cardiac surgical patients who were randomly assigned to combined GA and TEA versus GA alone. Follow-up was at 30 days and 1 yr after surgery. The primary endpoint was 30-day survival free from myocardial infarction, pulmonary complications, renal failure, and stroke. RESULTS: Thirty-day survival free from myocardial infarction, pulmonary complications, renal failure, and stroke was 85.2% in the TEA group and 89.7% in the GA group (P = 0.23). At 1 yr follow-up, survival free from myocardial infarction, pulmonary complications, renal failure, and stroke was 84.6% in the TEA group and 87.2% in the GA group (P = 0.42). Postoperative pain scores were low in both groups. CONCLUSIONS: This study was unable to demonstrate a clinically relevant benefit of TEA on the frequency of major complications after elective cardiac surgery, compared with fast-track cardiac anesthesia without epidural anesthesia. Given the potentially devastating complications of an epidural hematoma after insertion of an epidural catheter, it is questionable whether this procedure should be applied routinely in cardiac surgical patients who require full heparinization.
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