This idea was provoked by a colleague some years ago who could not achieve a palpable pulse during CPR of an arrested asthmatic child. He wondered whether the severe hyperinflation was rendering external cardiac compressions ineffective and whether he should have done a (prehospital) thoracotomy.
The literature is not strong. The 2010 AHA Guidelines rightly focus on reducing hyperinflation by disconnecting the tracheal tube from the ventilator circuit, and they mention ECMO for refractory cases, but there is no mention of open chest CPR.
I can only find two papers discussing it, both pretty old. A case series in the British Medical Journal from 1968 describes three patients with asthma who had asystolic arrests but did not achieve femoral pulses with external compressions(1). In two, open cardiac massage was performed resulting in restoration of sinus rhythm and cardiac output, and one appeared to make a neurological recovery.
A case report in 1987 describes a 32 year old man in asystolic cardiac arrest due to asthma(2):
“Ventilation required very high inflation pressures and little air movement was heard within the chest despite the administration of Adrenaline 1 mg and Aminophylline 250mg intravenously, and Adrenaline 1mg via the endotracheal tube. This was followed by an intravenous infusion of 100 ml of 8.4% Sodium Bicarbonate solution. External cardiac massage failed to produce a palpable pulse in the carotid area. The chest was, therefore, opened through a left anterolateral thoracotomy. The lungs appeared hyperinflated, bulky and tense and did not collapse when the pleural cavity was opened. The pericardium was opened and asystole confirmed, following eight to ten compressions of the heart some intrinsic activity commenced, ventilation also became much easier.”
He achieved ROSC and became haemodynamically stable but failed to wake up and treatment was withdrawn some days later.
Neither reports include mention of disconnection strategies to reduce hyperinflation. The lack of neurological recovery is not surprising given the apparent prolonged state of arrest the patients were resuscitated from. However there does appear to be a survivor who may not have made it had standard resuscitation (at the time) been continued.
Does this mean I would open the chest in an arrested asthma patient?
Not straight away, no. I would treat dynamic hyperinflation with tube disconnection and external compressions. I would correct absolute and relative hypovolaemia with crystalloid. I would treat bronchospasm (and possible anaphylaxis) with intravenous adrenaline/epinephrine. And I would exclude pneumothorax, possibly with ultrasound or more likely with bilateral open thoracostomies. If however these measures resulted in no detectable carotid flow with external cardiac compressions, ECMO was not available, and the arrest was not prolonged, I would definitely consider doing internal cardiac massage via thoracotomy.
What about you?
1. Grant IW, Kennedy WP, Malone DN
Deaths from asthma
Br Med J. 1968 May 18;2(5602):429–30
2. Diament RH, Sloan JP
Failed resuscitation in acute severe asthma: a medical indication for emergency thoracotomy?
Arch Emerg Med. 1987 Dec;4(4):233–5