The Cardiac Box: Meaningful For Gunshot Wounds?

A common dogma in trauma training is: “Watch out for the box!” This area on the anterior chest is purported to indicate high risk of cardiac injury in patients with penetrating trauma.

Where is it, exactly? Technically, it’s the zone extending from nipple to nipple, and from sternal notch to xiphoid.

The cardiac box

But is the dogma true? A number of (old) papers mapped out the location and incidence of cardiac injury in stabs to the chest and upper abdomen. And there is a pretty good correlation. For stab wounds. But what about gunshots?

A team at Emory University ran a retrospective review of their trauma registry data over a three year period.

Here are the factoids:

  • They saw nearly 90 patients per year with penetrating chest wounds. Of these, 80% were gunshots (!) Many had more than one penetration.
  •  Of the 233 gunshots inside “the box”, 34% injured the heart
  • The remaining 44 gunshots outside “the box” hit the heart 32% of the time
  • The authors suggest shifting the definition of “the box” toward the left, so that it extends from anterior midline, wraps around the left chest, and ends in the posterior midline (see below)

new-cardiac-box

Bottom line: Here’s the problem. Knives are attached to a handle which tends to stay outside your patient. Thus, it can only go so deep. But a bullet will keep going until something stops it, or it runs out of gas. So it makes sense that the traditional boundaries of “the box” don’t apply. But extending it to include the left lateral chest and exclude everything on the right side? It may make statistical sense in this study, but common sense dictates that the trauma professional needs to think about the heart any time a gunshot goes anywhere near the chest or upper abdomen. Do not limit yourself to any “box!”

Reference: Redefining the cardiac box: evaluation of the relationship between thoracic gunshot wounds and cardiac injury. AAST 2016 Paper #12.

Print Friendly