All posts by TheTraumaPro

Do Trauma Patients Need A Rectal Exam?

It has long been standard operating procedure to perform a digital rectal exam in all major trauma patients. The belief has always been that valuable information about blood in the GI tract, the status of the urethra, and the neuro exam (rectal tone) could be gleaned from the exam.

Unfortunately, the exam also serves to antagonize or even further traumatize some patients, especially those who may be intoxicated to some degree. On a number of occasions I have seen calm patients become so agitated by the rectal that they required intubation for control.

So is it really necessary? A study in 2001 conducted over a 6 month period (1) showed that the rectal exam influenced management in only 1.2% of cases. The authors felt that there was some utility in 3 special cases:

  • Spinal cord injury – looking for sacral sparing
  • Pelvic fracture – looking for bone shards protruding into the rectum
  • Penetrating abdominal trauma – looking for gross blood

A more recent 2005 study (2) was also critical of the rectal exam and found that using “other clinical indicators” (physical exam and other diagnostic study information) was at least equivalent, changing management only 4% of the time. They concurred with the first two indications above as well.

The Bottom Line: For most major trauma patients, the rectal exam is not worth the patient aggravation it causes. I still recommend it for the 3 special cases listed above, however, as there are no equivalent exams for these potentially serious patient problems.

References:
1. Porter, Urcic. Am Surg. 2001 May;67(5):438-41.
2. Esposito et al. J Trauma. 2005 Dec;59(6):1314-9.

Use of Abdominal CT in Stab Wounds to the Anterior Abdomen

In general, stab wounds to the anterior abdomen (like any penetrating injury to the area) demand further evaluation to make sure there are no significant injuries. In the old days, a stab to the abdomen mandated a trip to the operating room. Fortunately, we recognized that more than half of these operations led to negative explorations.

Nowadays we can be much more selective. Here is my approach to evaluating these patients.

First, are there any indications that the patient needs to go to the OR right now?Check the vital signs. If there is any hemodynamic instability, operate! Check the abdomen. If there is obvious peritonitis, or significant tenderness more distant from the actual stab site, off you go to the OR!

Next, after finishing all of the usual ATLS protocol it’s time to evaluate further.Several options exist:

  • Observation – this is good for busy trauma centers that have lots of penetrating injury and busy ORs
  • DPL – not used too much any more, but certainly is legitimate. I recommend that your RBC count threshold be reduced to 25,000 or 50,000
  • Local wound exploration – this works in thinner people. Doing a LWE on an obese patient requires an incision that approaches the size of a small laparotomy. Might as well do it in the OR. Look for any violation of the anterior fascia.
  • CT scan – the new kid on the block

To use CT, the patient must be stable (remember, they should be in the OR if otherwise) and have had a full ATLS evaluation. They should also not be terribly thin. Too little fat makes it difficult to gauge depth of the injury.

The entry site(s) should be marked with a small marker to minimize streak artifact. Resist the temptation to just scan the area around the stab itself. Do a full IV contrast (no GI needed) abdomen/pelvis scan.

Look closely for blood outlining the wound tract. If it reaches the anterior abdominal fascia, the exam is positive. You do not need to see specific injury to the muscle or abdominal viscera. Violation of the anterior fascia is an absolute indication to proceed to the OR. On occasion, the knife will not penetrating the posterior fascia, or penetrates but does not injury any organs. In these cases it is best to have operated and found nothing rather than delaying and increasing the risk of intra-abdominal complications or infections.

Scan 1 shows blood tracking to the anterior fascia, as well as an increase in size of the rectus muscle.

Scan 2 shows penetration of the posterior rectus sheath with intra-abdominal fat herniating into it. The transverse colon is only 2 cm away deep to it. Scan 1 alone is enough to prompt you to take the patient to the OR!

A Quick and Dirty Test for Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an extremely common diagnosis in trauma patients. The majority are minor concussions that show no evidence of injury on head CT. Despite normal findings, however, a short conversation with the patient frequently demonstrates that they really do have a TBI.

Scoring systems can help quantitate how significant the head injury is. The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score is frequently used. This scoring system is not sensitive enough for minor head injuries, since a patient may be perseverating even with a GCS of 15.

The Short Blessed Test (SBT) is a 25 year old scoring system for minor TBI that has been well-validated. It takes only a few minutes to administer, and is very easy to score.

The most important part of the administration process is choosing a threshold for further evaluation and testing. We administer this test to all trauma patients with a suspected TBI (defined as known or suspected loss of consciousness, or amnesia for the traumatic event). If the final score is >7, we refer the patient for more extensive evaluation by phsyical and occupational therapy. If the score is 7 or less but not zero, consideration should be given to offering routine followup in a minor neurotrauma clinic as an outpatient. In all cases, patients should be advised to avoid situations that would lead to a repeat concussion in the next month.

Reference: Katzman R, Brown T, Fuld P, Peck A, Schechter R, Schimmel H. Validation of a short Orientation-Memory-Concentration Test of cognitive impairment. Am J Psychiatry. 1983 Jun;140(6):734-9.

Spine Immobilization in Penetrating Trauma: More Harm Than Good?

The EMS standard of care for blunt trauma patients has been to fully immobilize the spine before transporting to an emergency department. This is such a common practice that it is frequently applied to victims of penetrating trauma prior to transport.

A recent study in the Journal of Trauma calls this practice in question, and suggests that it may increase mortality! The authors reviewed data in the National Trauma Data Bank, looking at information on penetrating trauma patients. They found that approximately 4% of these patients underwent spine immobilization.

Review of mortality statistics found that the mortality in non-immobilized (7%) doubled to 14% in the immobilized group!

The authors also found that medics would have to fail to immobilize over 1000 patients to harm one who really needed it, but to fully immobilize 66 patients who didn’t need it to contribute to 1 death.

Although this type of study can’t definitely show why immobilization in these patients is bad, it can be teased out by looking at related research. Even the relatively short delays caused by applying collars and back boards can lead to enough of a delay to definitive care in penetrating trauma patients that it could be deadly. The assumption in all of these patients is that they are bleeding to death until proven otherwise.

A number of studies have suggested that a “limited scene intervention” to prehospital care is best. The assumption is that the most effective treatment can only be delivered at a trauma center, so rapid transport with attention to airway, breathing and circulation is the best practice.

While interesting, some real-life common sense should be applied by all medics who treat these types of patients. The reality is that it is nearly impossible to destabilize the spine with a knife, so all stab victims can be transported without a thought to spine immobilization. Gunshots can damage the spine and spinal cord, so if there is any doubt that the bullet passed nearby, at least simple precautions should be taken to minimize spine movement.

Reference: Spine Immobilization in Penetrating Trauma: More Harm Than Good? Haut et al, Johns Hopkins. J Trauma 68(1): 115-121, 2010.

How To: Stop Scalp Bleeding

Bleeding from scalp wounds may seem like a trivial problem, but I have personally seen someone die from unrecognized hemorrhage over time from one. All too often, these are covered up with a crude dressing when the patient arrives in the ED and is not looked at for some time.

Here are some tips to stop scalp bleeding:

  • Use direct pressure. This seems obvious but is frequently done incorrectly. Direct pressure involves a small diameter piece of gauze (stack of 2x2s or double folded 4×4) and only one or two fingers. Larger dressings or the palm of the hand do not provide enough pressure to stop all the bleeding. Direct pressure for 5 minutes (no peeking) will stop all bleeding that doesn’t need more advanced techniques.
  • Inject local anesthetic with epinephrine. This increases vasoconstriction and helps the direct pressure work even better. Be cautious if there is a large skin flap that does not have a nice pink color. Degloved skin has been crushed and small vessel vascular injury has occurred. Further reducing blood flow with epinephrine may kill the skin flap in this type of injury.
  • Apply Raney clips. Neurosurgeons use these to stop scalp bleeding during brain procedures. Caution! Only apply to unconscious patients, and only to the scalp (not face)! These hurt!
    Raney clips
  • Oversew the scalp. Use a large silk or nylon suture and insert a large running stitch to close the wound. This will stop all bleeding from the skin edges. However, any arterial bleeders underneath will continue to be a problem.
  • Ligate individual bleeders. Use a small absorbable suture and attack each small arterial bleeder with a figure of 8 stitch. Don’t suture large chunks of tissue; make sure that you are attacking just the artery and not any adjacent nerves.