EMS: How Soon To Extricate The Pinned Patient?

This post was requested by one of my EMS colleagues who is the medical director of a rural EMS agency.

Maybe you watched the movie “Signs” by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Mel Gibson.  Gibson is a preacher whose wife was killed in a tragic accident. She was running and was pinned against a tree by a pickup truck. She is so badly injured that only the pressure of the truck against her is keeping her alive (and together, apparently). Gibson gets to have a few final words before being extricated (and killed).

Could this really happen? Shouldn’t entrapped people be extricated immediately, or do our prehospital providers need to wait until more advanced medical care is present at the scene?

Here’s the movie clip, if you are interested:

Obviously, you will find NO research on anything like this. The real question is, should EMS first responders (if not medically equipped and able) completely extricate an entrapped patient before paramedics or other trauma professionals with advanced skills are present? In other words, can you die just from being unentangled from the wreckage, like Mel Gibson’s wife?

The answer is, possibly. But it might not be for the reasons you think. Remember, this is Hollywood.

There are two killers upon release from entrapment. First, the mechanism by which the patient is pinned may be holding pressure on things that are or want to bleed. These include the pelvic bones, injuries to the torso, groins, and proximal extremities, and possibly even intra-abdominal hemorrhage sources. I’m discounting the chest because if there is enough pressure to tamponade bleeding, it will probably critically impair hemodynamics and ventilation to the point of killing your patient prior to extrication anyway.

The second factor is a crush injury, with release of a bolus of acidic, potassium laden blood from the crushed extremity upon release. This is probably quite rare, since it takes a significant amount of time for the un- or under-perfused extremity to build up enough of these substances to pose a threat. If the patient has been entrapped for less than 30-60 minutes, there is probably little danger to releasing them.

Bottom line: It is probably best to wait for ALS providers to arrive so IVs can be established and post-extrication resuscitation can be planned. This includes having fluid and/or blood products available in case critical bleeding starts once the pressure has been released. And don’t worry about reperfusion injury unless your patient has been trapped for quite a while.

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