Category Archives: Tips

How To: Insert A Small Percutaneous Chest Tube

This short (10 minute) video demonstrated the technique for inserting small chest tubes, also known as “pigtail catheters.” It features Jessie Nelson MD from the Regions Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine. It was first shown at the third annual Trauma Education: The Next Education conference in September 2015, for which she was a course director.

Please feel free to leave any comments or ask any questions that you may have.

Related posts:
Pigtail catheters vs regular chest tubes
Tips for regular chest tubes 

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What Is: Lunchothorax?

Here’s an operative tip for trauma professionals who find themselves in the OR. Heard of “lunchothorax?” I’m sure most of you haven’t. The term originated in a 1993 paper on the history of thoracoscopic surgery. It really hasn’t been written about in the context of trauma surgery, though.

Lunchothorax is an empyema caused by pleural contamination in patients with concomitant diaphragm and hollow viscus injury. This most commonly occurs with penetrating injuries to the left upper quadrant and/or left lower back. The two penetrations tend to be in close proximity (diaphragm + stomach), but may occasionally be further away (diaphragm + colon).

One of the earlier papers describing the correlation of gastric injury and empyema was written by one of my mentors, John Weigelt. Although gastric repair is usually simple and heals well, his group did note a few severe complications. Of 243 patients with this injury, 15 developed ones that were considered severe, and 10 of those were empyema! What gives?

It turns out that the combination of gastric contents and pleural space is not a good one. It’s not really clear why this is. Is it bacterial? The acid? Undigested food? I’ve seen cases with what I would consider minimal contamination go on to develop a nasty empyema. This is also borne out in a National Trauma Databank review from 2009. It looked at complications in patients with a diaphragm injury and found that a gastric injury increased the probability of empyema by 3x. Interestingly, there was no increased risk of empyema with a concomitant colon injury.

Bottom line: Lunchothorax, or empyema after even minimal contamination from a hollow viscus, is a dreaded complication of thoraco-abdominal penetrating injury. Any time the stomach and diaphragm are violated, I recommend thoroughly irrigating the chest. It’s probably a good idea for concomitant colon injury as well, but there’s less literature support.

This can be done through the diaphragm injury if it is large enough, or through a chest tube inserted separately. Most of the time, you’ll be placing the chest tube anyway because the pleural space has been violated via the abdomen. In either case, copious lavage with saline is recommended to clear all particulate material, with a few extra liters just for good measure. There’s no data on use of antibiotics, but standard perioperative coverage for the abdominal injuries should be sufficient if the lavage was properly performed.


  • The history of thoracoscopic surgery. Ann Thoracic Surg 56(3):610-614, 1993.
  • Penetrating injuries to the stomach. SGO 172(4):298-302, 1991.
  • Risk factors for empyema after diaphragmatic injury: results of a National Trauma Databank analysis. J Trauma 66(6):1672-1676, 2009. 
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Keeping Patients Warm In Your Trauma Bay

Hypothermia is the enemy of all trauma patients. It takes their potential bleeding problems and makes them exponentially worse. From the time you strip off their clothes in the trauma resuscitation room, they begin to cool down. And if you live in Minnesota like me (or some similar fun place), they start chilling even before that.

What can you do in the trauma bay to help avoid this potential complication? Here are some of the possibilities, and what I think of them. And I’ll also provide a practical tip to help keep your patient warm  while you can still do a full exam.


– Warming lights in the ambulance unloading area. I know lots of people look at this area and recommend them. Unfortunately, they don’t do a lot. Consider that your patient will move through this space quickly. While it may be cold, they’ll only spend a minute or so getting to the back door to the ED.

– How about the path from the helipad? If this is mostly outside, it can be a problem. If it’s wide open, there aren’t really a lot of options. Cover and heat it? Lots of $$$. Typically, flight crews working in winter climates have bundled up their patient very well, and this is the patient’s primary source of protection from the elements. If the pad is far away from the ED, consider a fancy golf cart to move them quickly, and perhaps get an even fancier one that has a heated enclosure.


– Heat the room! This only works on a moment’s notice if you have a smaller room or a really good heating system. Otherwise, you must keep it cranked it up at all times.

– Close the door! You will not be able to keep the room toasty unless you make sure the door is closed as much as possible. No doors? Then consider the next tips.

– Use radiant heating systems. Some EDs have lights in the ceiling, others have portable units that can be rolled over to your patient.

– Use hot fluids, especially in the winter. At a minimum, all blood products must be administered through a warmer, since they are only a few degrees above freezing. If it’s winter outside, or your patient is already cool, give all IV fluids through the warmer, too.

– Cover your patient. Keep a blanket warmer nearby, and pull several out at the beginning of each resuscitation.

– What about those fancy air blankets? Unfortunately, they are unwieldy. They’re all one piece, they try to fall of the patient all the time, and they limit access for your exam. But there is a solution!

Here’s a clever way to deal with this problem. Use my two-blanket trick. Don’t use just one warm sheet or blanket. Use two! Fold each one in half, so they are each half-length. Place one on the top half of the patient, the other at the bottom, overlapping slightly at the waist. Your whole patient is now covered and toasty. If you need to look at an extremity, fold the blanket that covers it over from right to left (or left to right) to uncover just the area of interest. To insert a urinary catheter, just open the area at the waist, moving the top sheet up a little, the bottom down a little. Voila!

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Trauma Surgery Tip: How To See The Unseeable – The Answer

Yesterday I posed a scenario where the surgeon needed to see an area of an open abdomen (trauma laparotomy) that could not easily be visualized. Specifically, there was a question as to whether the diaphragm had been violated just anterior to the liver, just under the costal margin.

Short of putting your head in the wound, how can you visualize this area? Or some other hard to reach spot? Well, you could have an assistant insert a retractor and pull like crazy. However, the rib cage might not bend very well, and in elderly patients it may break. Not a good idea.

Some readers suggested breaking out the laparoscopy equipment and using the camera and optics to visualize. This is a reasonable idea, but expensive. Shouldn’t there be some good (and cheap) way to do this?

Of course, and there is. Think low tech. Very low tech. You just need to see around a corner, right. So get a mirror!

Every OR has some sterile dental mirrors lying around. Get one and have your assistant gently hold the liver down while you indirectly examine the diaphragm. Since you’re probably not a dentist, it may take a minute or two to get used to manipulating the mirror to see just what you want. But if you can manage laparoscopic surgery, you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

And if you need more light up in those nooks and crannies? Shine the OR light directly into the abdomen, then place a nice shiny malleable retractor into the area to reflect light into the area in questions. Voila!

Bottom line: A lot of the things that trauma professionals need to do in the heat of the moment will not be found in doctor, nurse, or paramedic books. Be creative. Look at the stuff around you and available to you. Figure out a way to make it work, and make $#!+ up if necessary.

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