Clinical local anesthetics belong to one of two classes: aminoamide and aminoester local anesthetics. Synthetic local anesthetics are structurally related to cocaine. They differ from cocaine mainly in that they have no abuse potential and do not act on the sympathoadrenergic system, i.e. they do not produce hypertension or local vasoconstriction, with the exception of Ropivacaine and Mepivacaine that do produce weak vasoconstriction.
Local anesthetics are weak bases and are usually formulated as the hydrochloride salt to render them water-soluble. At the chemical's pKa the protonated (ionised) and unprotonated (unionised) forms of the molecule exist in an equilibrium but only the unprotonated molecule diffuses readily across cell membranes. Once inside the cell the local anesthetic will be in equilibrium, with the formation of the protonated (ionised 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 local anaesthetic binding site on the inside of the ion channel near the cytoplasmic end.
Acidosis such as caused by inflammation at a wound partly reduces the action of local anesthetics. This is partly because most of the anaesthetic is ionised and therefore unable to cross the cell membrane to reach its cytoplasmic-facing site of action on the sodium channel.
All nerve fibres are sensitive to local anesthetics, but generally, those with a smaller diameter tend to be more sensitive than larger fibres. Local anesthetics block conduction in the following order: small myelinated axons (e.g. those carrying nociceptive impulses), non-myelinated axons, then large myelinated axons. Thus, a differential block can be achieved (i.e. pain sensation is blocked more readily than other sensory modalities).
It is suggested that symptoms may continue to improve for up to 18 months following injury.
General systemic adverse affects are due to the pharmacological effects of the anesthetic agents used. The conduction of electric impulses follows a similar mechanism in peripheral nerves, the central nervous system, and the heart. The effects of local anesthetics are therefore not specific for the signal conduction in peripheral nerves. Side effects on the central nervous system and the heart may be severe and potentially fatal. However, toxicity usually occurs only at plasma levels which are rarely reached if proper anesthetic techniques are adhered to. Additionally, persons may exhibit allergenic reactions to the anesthetic compounds and may also exhibit cyanosis due to methemoglobinemia.
The conductive system of the heart is quite sensitive to the action of local anesthetics. Lidocaine is often used as an antiarrhythmic drug and has been studied extensively, but the effects of other local anesthetics are probably similar to those of Lidocaine. Lidocaine acts by blocking sodium channels, leading to slowed conduction of impulses. This may obviously result in bradycardia, but tachyarrhythmia can also occur. With high plasma levels of lidocaine there may be higher-degree atrioventricular block and severe bradycardia, leading to coma and possibly death.
Adverse reactions to local anesthetics (especially the esters) are not uncommon, but true allergy is very rare. Allergic reactions to the esters is usually due to a sensitivity to their metabolite, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), and does not result in cross-allergy to amides. Therefore, amides can be used as alternatives in those patients. Non-allergic reactions may resemble allergy in their manifestations. In some cases, skin tests and provocative challenge may be necessary to establish a diagnosis of allergy. There are also cases of allergy to paraben derivatives, which are often added as preservatives to local anesthetic solutions.
The systemic toxicity of prilocaine is comparatively low, however its metabolite, o-toluidine, is known to cause methemoglobinemia. As methemoglobinemia reduces the amount of hemoglobin that is available for oxygen transport, this side effect is potentially life-threatening. Therefore dose limits for prilocaine should be strictly observed. Prilocaine is not recommended for use in infants.
Esters are prone to producing allergic reactions, which may necessitate the use of an Amide. The names of Amides contain an "i" somewhere before the -aine. Esters do not (with the exception of dimethocaine).
Naturally occurring local anesthetics not derived from cocaine are usually neurotoxins, and have the suffix -toxin in their names. Unlike cocaine produced local anesthetics which are intracellular in effect, saxitoxin & tetrodotoxin bind to the extracellular side of sodium channels.