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

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