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.

Initial Evaluation of Blunt Abdominal Trauma – Update

This preliminary EAST Practice Management Guideline was presented and discussed at the 23rd Annual Scientific Assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

The EAST practice guideline regarding evaluation of blunt abdominal trauma was first published in 2001. It was updated by performing a new literature search spanning 1998 to 2009. A total of 33 new articles were reviewed to provide material for the revised guideline. As usual, the number of high quality references (3 Class I and 11 Class II) were outnumbered by lower quality Class III references (19).

For information on classes of data and levels of recommendations, please refer to the Primer on Evidenced Based Medicine on the EAST website.

Important: These guidelines are preliminary and may undergo further minor revision, so the final version may be slightly different than described here!

The Level I recommendations remained basically the same, with one modification (bolded below):

  1. FAST may be considered as the initial diagnostic modality to exclude hemoperitoneum.
  2. Exploratory laparotomy is indicated in hemodynamically unstable patients with a positive FAST. In hemodynamically stable patients with a positive FAST, follow-up CT scan permits nonoperative management of select injuries.
  3. Exploratory laparotomy is indicated for patients with a positive DPL and hemodynamic instability.

There was some interesting discussion about the continued utility of DPL. Some audience members felt that this was an outdated technique. Others pointed out that not all surgeons work in a Level I or II trauma center, and that FAST may not be available to them, so the technique remains relevant. Additionally, these guidelines may be used abroad where more advanced diagnostic testing is not as readily available, so it was recommended that the DPL language be retained.

The Level II recommendations are:

  1. When DPL is used, clinical decisions should be made on the basis of the presence of gross blood on initial aspiration (i.e. 10ml) or microscopic analysis of lavage effluent.
  2. Surveillance studies (i.e. DPL, CT scan, repeat FAST) should be considered in hemodynamically stable patients with indeterminate FAST results.
  3. CT scanning is recommended for the evaluation of hemodynamically stable patients with equivocal findings on physical examination, associated with neurologic injury, or multiple extra-abdominal injuries. Under these circumstances, patients with a negative CT should be admitted for observation.
  4. CT scanning is the diagnostic modality of choice for nonoperative management of solid visceral injuries.
  5. In hemodynamically stable patients, DPL and CT scanning are complementary diagnostic modalities.
  6. Contrast enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) is more sensitive than non-contrast ultrasound in the detection of solid organ injury. Many members of the audience were not familiar with this technique. I will comment on it in a later blog entry.
  7. In the patient at high risk for intra-abdominal injury (e.g. multiple orthopedic injuries, severe chest wall trauma, neurologic impairment) a CT scan should be considered in hemodynamically stable patients, even after a negative FAST.

Finally, the Level III recommendations are:

  1. Objective testing (i.e. FAST, DPL, CT scanning) is indicated for patients with abnormal mentation, equivocal findings on physical examination, multiple injuries, concomitant chest injury, or hematuria.
  2. Patients with seat belt sign should be admitted for observation and serial physical examination. The presence of intraperitoneal fluid on FAST or CT scan in a patient with seat belt sign suggests the presence of an intra-abdominal injury that may require surgery.
  3. CT scanning is indicated for suspected renal injuries.
  4. In hemodynamically stable patients with a positive DPL, a CT scan should be considered, especially in the presence of pelvic fracture or suspected injuries to the genitourinary tract, diaphragm or pancreas.
  5. Patients with free fluid and no solid organ injury on CT should be considered for laparotomy. Alternatively, laparoscopy or DPL may aid in diagnosis of bowel injury. Patients with no head injury and clear mentation may be followed by serial exams.

Using Shock Index to Identify Risk for Massive Transfusion

This paper was presented at the 23rd Annual Scientific Assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Frequently, the need for massive transfusion in major trauma patients is apparent as soon as they arrive in the emergency department. Occasionally, the trauma team is surprised when an apparently stable patient catastrophically drops their pressure. This paper attempts to identify an easily calculated parameter to help predict those surprises before they happen.

The shock index (SI) is defined as the heart rate divided by the systolic blood pressure (HR/SBP). Normal values range from 0.5 to 0.7. The authors looked at all blunt trauma victims at their trauma center over a 9 year period who entered the ED with a SBP > 90. There were 8111 of these patients who met these criteria, and 276 required massive transfusion (3.4%), which they defined as 10 or more units of packed cells in 24 hours.

Analysis of their data showed that the risk for massive transfusion doubled with a SI > 0.9, quintupled for SI > 1.1, and was 7 times higher for SI > 1.3. There was some criticism for using only blunt trauma patients and for the authors’ definition of massive transfusion, but their data appeared to be sound.

The bottom line: the easily calculated Shock Index (HR/SBP) reliably predicts the need for massive transfusion in blunt trauma patients. It is probably valid for penetrating injury as well, but this was not addressed in the current paper.

Reference: Identifying Risk for Massive Transfusion in the Relatively Normotensive Patient: Utility of the Prehospital Shock Index. Vandromme, Griffin, Kerby, McGwin, Rue, Weinberg. University of Alabama at Birmingham.


This interesting paper was presented at the 23rd Annual Scientific Assembly of EAST. The authors studied attitudes and behaviors regarding texting among college students. They performed an anonymous internet survey of 426 freshmen looking at a number of indicators. The specific items and results are as follows:

  • Average age of cell phone use: 14
  • Average age of first texting: 15
  • 73% have texted while driving but
    • 53% do not believe they can safely text while driving and
    • 60% feel texting while driving should be illegal
    • Only 63% would abide by the law if it were passed
  • 92% feel texting is less safe than talking on the cell phone
  • 84% have ridden with drivers who text

A lot of psychological subterfuge goes on in the minds of these young adults as they consider whether to text while driving or not. They weigh the use of fear control (rationalization) versus danger control (behavior change), and frequently rationalization wins out as the majority continue to engage in this risky behavior.

Education and awareness are needed to try to change behaviors, but will probably not be sufficient. Another study at this meeting compared cell phone use in two adjacent states, one where it was not legal and the other where it was. Cell phone use in the unrestricted state was over 6% vs 2% in the restricted state. Education programs, coupled with laws making texting illegal are a good combination, but more work will need to be done. Cell phone apps are in development that shut down talk and text functions when they are moving at automobile speeds. More innovative solutions like this will certainly be required.