All posts by TheTraumaPro

How To Troubleshoot Air Leaks in Chest Tube Systems

An air leak is a sure-fire reason to keep a chest tube in place. Fortunately, many air leaks are not from the patient’s chest, but from a plumbing problem. Here’s how to locate the leak.

To quickly localize the problem, take a sizable clamp (no mosquito clamps, please) and place it on the chest tube between the patient’s chest and the plastic connector that leads to the collection system. Watch the water seal chamber of the system as you do this. If the leak stops, it is coming from the patient or leaking in from the chest wall.

If the leak persists, clamp the soft Creech tubing between the plastic connector and the collection system itself. If the leak stops now, the connector is loose.

If it is still leaking, then the collection system is bad or has been knocked over.

Here are the remedies for each problem area:

  • Patient – Take the dressing down and look at the skin entry site. Does it gape, or is their obvious air hissing and entering the chest? If so, plug it with petrolatum gauze. If not, the air is actually coming out of your patient and you must wait it out.
  • Connector – Secure it with Ty-Rap fasteners or tape (see picture). This is a common problem area.
  • Collection system – The one-way valve system is not functioning, or the system has been knocked over. Replace it immediately.

Note: If you are using a “dry seal” system (click here for more on this) you will not be able to tell if you have a leak until you fill the seal chamber with some water.

Conventional Chest Tube vs Pigtail Catheter

Traditionally, hemothorax and pneumothorax in trauma has been treated with chest tubes. I’ve previously written about some of the debate regarding using smaller tubes or catheters. A paper that will be presented at the EAST meeting in January looked at pain and failure rates using 14Fr pigtail catheters vs 28Fr chest tubes.

This was a relatively small, prospective study, and only 40 of 74 eligible patients were actually enrolled over 20 months at a Level I trauma center in the US. Pain was measured using a standard Visual Analog Scale, as was complication and failure rate, tube duration and hospital stay.

The following interesting findings were noted:

  • Chest wall pain was similar. This is expected because the underlying cause of the pneumothorax, most likely rib fractures, is unchanged.
  • Tube site pain was significantly less with the pigtail
  • The failure rate was the same (5-10%)
  • Complication rate was also the same (10%)
  • Time that the tube was in, and hospital stay was the same

Bottom line: There may be some benefit in terms of tube site pain when using a smaller catheter instead of a chest tube. But remember, this is a very small study, so be prepared for different results if you try it for your own trauma program. If you do choose to use a smaller tube or catheter, remember to do so only in patients with a pure pneumothorax. Clotted blood from a hemothorax will not be completely evacuated.

Reference: A prospective randomized study of 14-French pigtail catheters vs 28F chest tubes in patients with traumatic pneumothorax: impact on tube-site pain and failure rate. EAST Annual Surgical Assembly, Oral paper 12, 2013.

Trauma Chest Tube Tips

I’ve written a lot about chest tubes, but there’s actually a lot to know. And a fair amount of misinformation as well. Here’s some info you need to be familiar with:

  • Chest trauma generally means there is some blood in the chest. This has some bearing on which size chest tube you choose. Never assume that there is only pneumothorax based on the chest xray. Clot will plug up small tubes.
  • Chest tubes for trauma only come in two sizes: big (36Fr) and bigger (40Fr). Only these large sizes have a chance in evacuating most of the clot from the pleural space. The only time you should consider a smaller tube, or a pigtail type catheter, is if you know for a fact that there is no blood in the chest. The only way to tell this is with chest CT, which you should not be getting for diagnosis of ordinary chest trauma. Having said this, there is some more recent literature that suggests that size might not matter as much as we think.
  • When inserting the tube, you have no control of the location the tube goes once you release the instrument used to place it. Some people believe they can direct a tube anteriorly, posteriorly, or anywhere they want. They can’t, and it’s not important (see next tip).
  • Specific tube placement is not important, as long as it goes in the pleural space. Some believe that posterior placement is best for hemothorax, and anterior placement for pneumothorax. It doesn’t really matter because the laws of physics make sure that everything gets sucked out of the chest regardless of position except for things too big to fit in the tube (e.g. the lung).
  • Tunneling the tube tract over a rib is not necessary in most people. In general, we have enough fat on our chest to ensure that the tract will close up immediately when the tube is pulled. A nicely placed dressing is your insurance policy.
  • Adhere to an organized tube management protocol to reduce complications and the time the tube is in the chest.

And finally, amaze your friends! The French system used to size chest tubes is the diameter of the tube in millimeters times three (3.14159, pi to be exact). So a 40Fr chest tube has a diameter of 13.3mm.