A local anesthetic (LA) is a medication that causes absence of pain sensation. In the context of surgery, a local anesthetic creates an absence of pain in a specific location of the body without a loss of consciousness, as opposed to a general anesthetic. When it is used on specific nerve pathways (local anesthetic nerve block), paralysis (loss of muscle power) also can be achieved.
Clinical LAs belong to one of two classes: aminoamide and aminoester local anesthetics. Synthetic LAs are structurally related to cocaine. They differ from cocaine mainly in that they have a very low abuse potential and do not produce hypertension or (with few exceptions) vasoconstriction.
They are used in various techniques of local anesthesia such as:
- Topical anesthesia (surface)
- Topical administration of cream, gel, ointment, liquid, or spray of anaesthetic dissolved in DMSO or other solvents/carriers for deeper absorption
- Brachial plexus block
- Epidural (extradural) block
- Spinal anesthesia (subarachnoid block)
All LAs are membrane-stabilizing drugs; they reversibly decrease the rate of depolarization and repolarization of excitable membranes (like nociceptors). Though many other drugs also have membrane-stabilizing properties, not all are used as LAs (propranolol, for example, though it has LA properties). LA drugs act mainly by inhibiting sodium influx through sodium-specific ion channels in the neuronal cell membrane, in particular the so-called voltage-gated sodium channels. When the influx of sodium is interrupted, an action potential cannot arise and signal conduction is inhibited. The receptor site is thought to be located at the cytoplasmic (inner) portion of the sodium channel. Local anesthetic drugs bind more readily to sodium channels in an activated state, thus onset of neuronal blockade is faster in rapidly firing neurons. This is referred to as state-dependent blockade.
LAs are weak bases and are usually formulated as the hydrochloride salt to render them water-soluble. At a pH equal to the protonated base's pKa, the protonated (ionized) and unprotonated (unionized) forms of the molecule exist in equimolar amounts, but only the unprotonated base diffuses readily across cell membranes. Once inside the cell, the local anesthetic will be in equilibrium, with the formation of the protonated (ionized) form, which does not readily pass back out of the cell. This is referred to as "ion-trapping". In the protonated form, the molecule binds to the LA binding site on the inside of the ion channel near the cytoplasmic end. Most LAs work on the internal surface of the membrane - the drug has to penetrate the cell membrane, which is achieved best in the non-ionized form.
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