Tag Archives: thoracostomy


Needle decompression: it’s still not going to work

A pet topic that keeps coming up here is management of tension pneumothorax. Plenty of studies demonstrate that traditionally taught needle thoracostomy may fail, and open, or ‘finger’ thoracostomy is recommended for the emergency management of tension pneumothorax in a patient who is being ventilated with positive pressure (including those patients in cardiac arrest).

A recent CT scan-based study of adult trauma patients makes the case that needle decompression with a standard iv cannula would be expected to fail in 42.5% of cases at the second intercostal space (ICS) compared with 16.7% at the fifth ICS at the anterior axillary line (AAL).

The authors add an important point: “As BMI increases, there is a stepwise increase in chest wall thickness, further compounding the difficulty of needle placement in all but the lowest BMI quartile for the second ICS.”

An accompanying editorial cautions that the proximity of the heart may confer a safety issue if a needle is inserted blindly into the left 5th ICS at the AAL.


Objective To compare the distance to be traversed during needle thoracostomy decompression performed at the second intercostal space (ICS) in the midclavicular line (MCL) with the fifth ICS in the anterior axillary line (AAL).

Design Patients were separated into body mass index (BMI) quartiles, with BMI calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. From each BMI quartile, 30 patients were randomly chosen for inclusion in the study on the basis of a priori power analysis (n = 120). Chest wall thickness on computed tomography at the second ICS in the MCL was compared with the fifth ICS in the AAL on both the right and left sides through all BMI quartiles.

Setting Level I trauma center.

Patients Injured patients aged 16 years or older evaluated from January 1, 2009, to January 1, 2010, undergoing computed tomography of the chest.

Results A total of 680 patients met the study inclusion criteria (81.5% were male and mean age was 41 years [range, 16-97 years]). Of the injuries sustained, 13.2% were penetrating, mean (SD) Injury Severity Score was 15.5 (10.3), and mean BMI was 27.9 (5.9) (range, 15.4-60.7). The mean difference in chest wall thickness between the second ICS at the MCL and the fifth ICS at the AAL was 12.9 mm (95% CI, 11.0-14.8; P < .001) on the right and 13.4 mm (95% CI, 11.4-15.3; P < .001) on the left. There was a stepwise increase in chest wall thickness across all BMI quartiles at each location of measurement. There was a significant difference in chest wall thickness between the second ICS at the MCL and the fifth ICS at the AAL in all quartiles on both the right and the left. The percentage of patients with chest wall thickness greater than the standard 5-cm decompression needle was 42.5% at the second ICS in the MCL and only 16.7% at the fifth ICS in the AAL.

Conclusions In this computed tomography–based analysis of chest wall thickness, needle thoracostomy decompression would be expected to fail in 42.5% of cases at the second ICS in the MCL compared with 16.7% at the fifth ICS in the AAL. The chest wall thickness at the fifth ICS AAL was 1.3 cm thinner on average and may be a preferred location for needle thoracostomy decompression.

Radiologic evaluation of alternative sites for needle decompression of tension pneumothorax
Arch Surg. 2012 Sep 1;147(9):813-8

Prehospital thoracostomy tube misplacement

An interesting study from Germany examined prehospital thoracostomy tube (TT) placement by physicians working in the field. Of 69 patients who received them, 67 underwent prehospital intubation. 88 TT were placed in the 69 patients.

There were 19/88 (22%) radiologic chest tube misplacements (defined as too far in the chest, twisted, or bent). The position of 10/88 (11%) chest tubes had to be corrected. None of the patients with a TT had a “not-decompressed” pneumothorax or a chest tube placed below the diaphragm or into a solid organ.

Roughly half were placed in the ‘Monaldi’ position (the second or third intercostal space in the midclavicular line)…..

Monaldi position

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…..and half in the Bülau position (fourth or fifth intercostal space in the midaxillary line).

Bülau position

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was no difference in the misplacement rates between the two positions although interestingly helicopter doctors (as opposed to ground response) more often opted for the Monaldi position.

It is not possible to tell from the results whether the TT insertion was indicated in all cases. Also, it would be interesting to know whether TT insertion preceded or followed tracheal intubation. While it is heartening that these physicians do not routinely rely on needle decompression, I cannot fathom while simple open thoracostomy was not used, avoiding the risk of tube misplacement and saving time.

See this post for a more thorough review of open thoracostomy and the limitations of needle decompression.



Objectives. To evaluate the frequency of use, placement site, success and misplacement rates, and need for intervention for tube thoracostomies (TTs), and the complications with endotracheal intubation associated with TT in the prehospital setting.


Methods. We performed a five-year, retrospective study using the records of 1,065 patients who were admitted to the trauma emergency room at a university hospital and who had received chest radiographs or computed tomography (CT) scans within 30 minutes after admission.


Results. Seven percent of all patients received a TT (5% unilateral, 2% bilateral). Ninety-seven percent of all patients with a TT were endotracheally intubated. The success rate for correctly placed chest tubes was 78%. Twenty-two percent of the chest tubes were misplaced (i.e., too far in the chest, twisted, or bent); half of those had to be corrected, with one needing to be replaced. There were no statistical differences in the frequency of Monaldi or Bülau positions, or the frequency of left or right chest TT. In addition, the two positions did not differ in misplacement rates or the need for intervention. Helicopter emergency medical services physicians used the Monaldi position significantly more frequently than the Bülau position. In-hospital physicians performing interhospital transfer used the Bülau position significantly more frequently, whereas ground emergency medical physicians had a more balanced relationship between the two positions. Tube thoracostomy had no influence on endotracheal tube misplacement rates, and vice versa.


Conclusion. Tube thoracostomy positioning mostly depends on the discretion of the physician on scene. The Monaldi and Bülau positions do not differ in misplacement or complication rates.


Incidence And Outcome Of Tube Thoracostomy Positioning In Trauma Patients
Prehosp Emerg Care. 2011 Oct 3. [Epub ahead of print]

More on needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax

Thanks to Dr. Matthew Oliver for highlighting these articles to me.

The standard teaching of placing a handy iv catheter in the 2nd intercostal space, midclavicular line for tension pneumothorax has been challenged by previous studies suggesting about a third of adults have a chest wall that is too thick for a standard 4.5 to 5 cm needle.

Some have therefore suggested that a lateral approach may be more appropriate.

Three studies this month provide more, although not entirely consistent, information.

An ultrasound study differed from previous CT studies by suggesting that most patients will have chest wall thickness (CWT) less than 4.5 cm, and found that the CW was thicker in the lateral area (4th intercostal space, midaxillary line)1.

In a cadaveric model, needle thoracostomy was successfully placed (confirmed by thoracotomy) in all attempts at the fifth intercostal space at the midaxillary line but in only just over half of insertions at the traditional second intercostal position2.

In a further study of trauma CT scans, measured CWT suggests that the lateral approach is less likely to be successful than the anterior approach, and the anterior approach may fail in many patients as well3.

The take home message for us must therefore remain that needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax might not be successful with a standard iv catheter, regardless of which approach is used. If tension pneumothorax is a possibility in the deteriorating patient and needle decompression has been unsuccessful, an alternative means of decompression (or ruling out pneumothorax) must be employed.

1. Ultrasound determination of chest wall thickness: implications for needle thoracostomy
Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Nov;29(9):1173-7


Objective: Computed tomography measurements of chest wall thickness (CWT) suggest that standard- length angiocatheters (4.5 cm) may fail to decompress tension pneumothoraces. We used an alternative modality, ultrasound, to measure CWT. We correlated CWT with body mass index (BMI) and used national data to estimate the percentage of patients with CWT greater than 4.5 cm.

Methods: This was an observational, cross-sectional study of a convenience sample. We recorded standing height, weight, and sex. We measured CWT with ultrasound at the second intercostal space, midclavicular line and at the fourth intercostal space, midaxillary line on supine subjects. We correlated BMI (weight [in kilograms]/height2 [in square meters]) with CWT using linear regression. 95% Confidence intervals (CIs) assessed statistical significance. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey results for 2007-2008 were combined to estimate national BMI adult measurements.

Results: Of 51 subjects, 33 (65%) were male and 18 (35%) were female. Mean anterior CWT (male, 2.1 cm; CI, 1.9-2.3; female, 2.3 cm; CI, 1.7-2.7), lateral CWT (male, 2.4 cm; CI, 2.1-2.6; female, 2.5 cm; CI 2.0-2.9), and BMI (male, 27.7; CI, 26.1-29.3; female, 30.0; CI, 25.8-34.2) did not differ by sex. Lateral CWT was greater than anterior CWT (0.2 cm; CI, 0.1-0.4; P < .01). Only one subject with a BMI of 48.2 had a CWT that exceeded 4.5 cm. Using national BMI estimates, less than 1% of the US population would be expected to have CWT greater than 4.5 cm.


Conclusions: Ultrasound measurements suggest that most patients will have CWT less than 4.5 cm and that CWT may not be the source of the high failure rate of needle decompression in tension pneumothorax.

2. Anterior versus lateral needle decompression of tension pneumothorax: comparison by computed tomography chest wall measurement.
Acad Emerg Med. 2011 Oct;18(10):1022-6


Objectives:  Recent research describes failed needle decompression in the anterior position. It has been hypothesized that a lateral approach may be more successful. The aim of this study was to identify the optimal site for needle decompression.

Methods:  A retrospective study was conducted of emergency department (ED) patients who underwent computed tomography (CT) of the chest as part of their evaluation for blunt trauma. A convenience sample of 159 patients was formed by reviewing consecutive scans of eligible patients. Six measurements from the skin surface to the pleural surface were made for each patient: anterior second intercostal space, lateral fourth intercostal space, and lateral fifth intercostal space on the left and right sides.

Results:  The distance from skin to pleura at the anterior second intercostal space averaged 46.3 mm on the right and 45.2 mm on the left. The distance at the midaxillary line in the fourth intercostal space was 63.7 mm on the right and 62.1 mm on the left. In the fifth intercostal space the distance was 53.8 mm on the right and 52.9 mm on the left. The distance of the anterior approach was statistically less when compared to both intercostal spaces (p <  0.01).


Conclusions:  With commonly available angiocatheters, the lateral approach is less likely to be successful than the anterior approach. The anterior approach may fail in many patients as well. Longer angiocatheters may increase the chances of decompression, but would also carry a higher risk of damage to surrounding vital structures.

3. Optimal Positioning for Emergent Needle Thoracostomy: A Cadaver-Based Study
J Trauma. 2011 Nov;71(5):1099-1103/a>


Background:  Needle thoracostomy is an emergent procedure designed to relieve tension pneumothorax. High failure rates because of the needle not penetrating into the thoracic cavity have been reported. Advanced Trauma Life Support guidelines recommend placement in the second intercostal space, midclavicular line using a 5-cm needle. The purpose of this study was to evaluate placement in the fifth intercostal space, midaxillary line, where tube thoracostomy is routinely performed. We hypothesized that this would result in a higher successful placement rate.

Methods:  Twenty randomly selected unpreserved adult cadavers were evaluated. A standard 14-gauge 5-cm needle was placed in both the fifth intercostal space at the midaxillary line and the traditional second intercostal space at the midclavicular line in both the right and left chest walls. The needles were secured and thoracotomy was then performed to assess penetration into the pleural cavity. The right and left sides were analyzed separately acting as their own controls for a total of 80 needles inserted into 20 cadavers. The thickness of the chest wall at the site of penetration was then measured for each entry position.

Results:  A total of 14 male and 6 female cadavers were studied. Overall, 100% (40 of 40) of needles placed in the fifth intercostal space and 57.5% (23 of 40) of the needles placed in the second intercostal space entered the chest cavity (p < 0.001); right chest: 100% versus 60.0% (p = 0.003) and left chest: 100% versus 55.0% (p = 0.001). Overall, the thickness of the chest wall was 3.5 cm ± 0.9 cm at the fifth intercostal space and 4.5 cm ± 1.1 cm at the second intercostal space (p < 0.001). Both right and left chest wall thicknesses were similar (right, 3.6 cm ± 1.0 cm vs. 4.5 cm ± 1.1 cm, p = 0.007; left, 3.5 ± 0.9 cm vs. 4.4 cm ± 1.1 cm, p = 0.008).


Conclusions:In a cadaveric model, needle thoracostomy was successfully placed in 100% of attempts at the fifth intercostal space but in only 58% at the traditional second intercostal position. On average, the chest wall was 1 cm thinner at this position and may improve successful needle placement. Live patient validation of these results is warranted.

Update October 2012: See this post about a further CT-scan based study favouring the 5th ICS compared with the 2nd

Open thoracostomy

Not a new paper to cite here, just a collection of resources that refer to open thoracostomy in trauma.

A longstanding practice by some European and Australasian HEMS physicians, open thoracostomy is essentially a chest tube procedure without the actual intercostal catheter: the surgical incision is made, blunt dissection is performed, and the pleura penetrated. The wound is then left open.

This is a rapid way of decompressing a tension pneumothorax in a critically injured trauma patient who is intubated. The positive pressure ventilation prevents the thoracostomy wound from acting as an open, ‘sucking’, chest wound.

In many pre-hospital services this is the preferred approach to pleural decompression in an intubated patient, and also forms part of the approach to resuscitation in traumatic cardiac arrest.

Some principles to consider are:

  • A tube and drainage system are not necessary for the drainage of air, but should be used if there is signficant haemothorax
  • The tissues may re-appose during transport so physiological deterioration should prompt a re-fingering of the thoracostomy to re-establish the drainage tract and allow air to escape
  • Standard intravenous cannula devices may be shorter than the distance from chest wall to pleural space in many adults, adding to the inadequacy of needle decompression
  • Signs of tension pneumothorax are rarely if ever as obvious as the textbooks suggest – unexplained shock or hypoxaemia in a patient with actual or probably thoracic trauma should prompt consideration of pleural decompression even in the absence of obvious clinical signs of pneumothorax – subtle evidence only may exist, such as palpable subcutaneous emphysema
  • This should only be done in intubated patients undergoing positive pressure ventilation!

This video shows the procedure, done by a relative beginner; a slightly larger incision with more assertive dissection would make it faster and more effective

Not yet heard Scott Weingart’s excellent podcast on traumatic arrest, which includes open, or ‘finger’, thoracostomy? You can find it here

Thoracostomy references

Simple Thoracostomy Avoids Chest Drain Insertion in Prehospital Trauma
J Trauma 1996 39(2):373-374

Simple thoracostomy in prehospital trauma management is safe and effective: a 2-year experience by helicopter emergency medical crews
European Journal of Emergency Medicine 2006, 13:276–280

Prehospital thoracostomy
European Journal of Emergency Medicine 2008, 15:283–285

Chest decompression during the resuscitation of patients in prehospital traumatic cardiac arrest
Emerg. Med. J. 2009;26;738-740

Life-saving or life-threatening? Prehospital thoracostomy for thoracic trauma
Emerg Med J 2007;24:305–306

Pre-Hospital and In-Hospital Thoracostomy: Indications and Complications
Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 2008 January; 90(1): 54–57

Needle decompression is inadequate:

Needle Thoracostomy in the Treatment of a Tension Pneumothorax in Trauma Patients: What Size Needle?
J Trauma. 2008;64:111–114

Pre-hospital management of patients with severe thoracic injury
Injury 1995 26(9):581-5

A tracheal tube in the chest

Intercostal catheters can kink, obstruct, or get pulled out. These hazards are greater during transport of the patient. Critical care and retrieval medicine doctors in Queensland, Australia (where many people are having a bad time right now) have invented an elegant alternative: using a cuffed tracheal tube in the pleural space instead. It can be attached to a Heimlich valve.

They even used a bit of science to demonstrate its effectiveness, by creating pneumothoraces and haemothoraces in sheep and comparing the tracheal tube with a standard intercostal catheter (ICC).

The method for insertion is simple:

  1. Breach the pleura
  2. Insert a 14 Fr Cook intubating bougie into the thoracic cavity
  3. Railroad a 7.0 mm internal diameter tracheal tube (ETT) into the chest cavity
  4. Inflate the cuff
  5. Retract the tube until resistance is felt.
  6. Remove the ETT connector
  7. Attach a Heimlich valve

The results of the comparison are convincing: ‘The ETT proved faster to insert for both sheep. This was likely because it did not require suturing. Both the ETT and the ICC were comparable in draining blood. It was noted that neither tube was particularly effective when the haemothorax was positioned ‘side-up’. When turned ‘side-down’, both tubes successfully drained blood. Despite having multiple drainage ports, the ICC required more manipulation and was noted to kink. Conversely, the ETT with a single lumen and a Murphy eye, was stiffer and drained a similar amount of blood without the catheter having to be milked.’

Proposed advantages of this method include:

  • More portable equipment
  • Faster insertion
  • Provides kit redundancy
  • Does not require suturing
  • Avoids operator trauma from any sharp edges such as a fractured rib. (No attempt was made to place a finger into the chest cavity in the ETT group).
  • Allows for a smaller incision
  • Less trauma to the insertion site
  • Might also offer a back up, when conventional equipment has been exhausted.

The authors graciously note that both Portex and Cook have developed ICC kits that now go some way in supporting the original idea behind this study. These include flexible introducers (Portex) and guidewire insertion technique (Cook).

Appraisal of the endotracheal tube as an alternative to the intercostal catheter
Emerg Med Australas. 2010 Dec;22(6):573-4

Insertion of chest drains

The UK National Health Service’s National Patient Safety Agency published a report entitled ‘Risks of chest drain insertion’, reporting 12 deaths and 15 cases of serious harm related to chest drain insertion over a three year period. They issue the following recommendations under the title ‘For IMMEDIATE ACTION by the NHS and independent sector – Deadline for ACTION COMPLETE is 17 November 2008’:
Clinical governance leads in local organisations should audit current practice and develop local policies to ensure:

  • Chest drains are only inserted by staff with relevant competencies and adequate supervision
  • Ultrasound guidance is strongly advised when inserting a drain for fluid
  • Clinical guidelines are followed and staff made aware of the risks
  • Identify a lead for training of all staff involved in chest drain insertion
  • Written evidence of consent is obtained from patients before the procedure, wherever possible
  • Local incident data relating to chest drains is reviewed and staff encouraged to report further incidents

Chest drains: risks associated with the insertion of chest drains
National Patient Safety Agency

Thoracostomy in blunt traumatic arrest

37 patients with blunt traumatic cardiac arrest underwent attempted resuscitation by a HEMS crew over a four year period. Chest decompression was performed in 18 cases (17 thoracostomy, one needle decompression). The procedure revealed evidence of chest injury in 10 cases (pneumothorax, haemothorax, massive air leak) and resulted in return of circulation and survival to hospital in four cases. All four cases died of associated major head injury, although one became a heart beating organ donor. Only half of the cases found to have pneumothorax demonstrated clinical signs of one prior to chest decompression.
The authors state: ‘Relying on clinical signs of the thorax alone will not identify all patients with these injuries, and our data support extending the practice into all patients with a suitable mechanism of injury together with external evidence of chest injury.’
Chest decompression during the resuscitation of patients in prehospital traumatic cardiac arrest
Emerg Med J. 2009 Oct;26(10):738-40

Chest needle too short

This CT study of 110 trauma patients showed: ‘the standard 4.4-cm angiocatheter is likely to be unsuccessful in 50% (95% confidence interval = 40.7–59.3%) of trauma patients on the basis of body habitus. In light of its low predicted success, the standard method for treatment of tension pneumothorax by prehospital personnel deserves further consideration’. Consistent with several other Ultrasound and CT-based studies published on the same subject then.

Needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax: failure predicted by chest computed tomography
Prehosp Emerg Care. 2009 Jan-Mar;13(1):14-7