Finding pneumomediastinum on a chest xray or CT scan always gets one’s attention. However, seeing this condition after a simple fall from standing is very simple to evaluate and manage.
There are 3 potential sources of gas in the mediastinum after trauma:
Smaller airways / lung parenchyma
Blunt injury to the esophagus is extremely rare, and probably nonexistent after just falling down. Likewise, a tracheal injury from falling over is unheard of. Both of these injuries are far more common with penetrating trauma.
This leaves the lung and smaller airways within it to consider. They are, by far, the most common sources of pneumomediastinum. The most common pattern is that this injury causes a small pneumothorax, which dissects into the mediastinum over time. On occasion, the leak tracks along the visceral pleura and moves directly to the mediastinum.
Management is simple: a repeat chest xray after 6 hours is needed to show non-progression of any pneumothorax, occult or obvious. This image will usually show that the mediastinal air is diminishing as well. There is no need for the patient to be kept NPO or in bed. Monitor any subjective complaints and if all progresses as expected, they can be discharged after a very brief stay.
Tomorrow: A more interesting (and complicated) case of pneumomediastinum.
The radiologist made me order that (unnecessary) test! I’ve heard this excuse many, many times. Do these phrases look familiar?
… recommend clinical correlation
… correlation with CT may be of value
… recommend delayed CT imaging through the area
… may represent thymus vs thoracic aortic injury (in a 2 year old who fell down stairs)
Some trauma professionals will read the radiology report and then immediately order more xrays. Others will critically look at the report, the patient’s clinical status and mechanism of injury, and then decide they are not necessary. I am firmly in the latter camp.
But why do some just follow the rad’s suggestions? I believe there are two major camps:
Those that are afraid of being sued if they don’t do everything suggested, because they’ve done everything and shouldn’t miss the diagnosis
Those that don’t completely understand what is known about trauma mechanisms and injury and think the radiologist does
Bottom line: The radiologist is your consultant. While they are good at reading images, they do not know the nuances of trauma. Plus, they didn’t get to see the patient so they don’t have the full context for their read. First, talk to the rad so they know what happened to the patient and what you are looking for. Then critically look at their read. If the mechanism doesn’t support the diagnosis, or they are requesting unusual or unneeded studies, don’t get them! Just document your rationale clearly in the record. This provides best patient care, and minimizes the potential complications (and radiation exposure) from unnecessary tests.
Our population is aging, and falls continue to be a leading cause of injury and morbidity in the elderly. Unfortunately, many elders have significant medical conditions that make them more likely to suffer unfortunate complications from their injuries and the procedures that repair them.
More and more hospitals around the world are applying a more multidisciplinary approach than the traditional model. One example is the Medical Orthopaedic Trauma Service (MOTS) at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Any elderly patient who has suffered a fracture is seen in the ED by both an emergency physician and a hospitalist from the MOTS team. Once in the hospital, the hospitalist and orthopaedic surgeon try to determine the reason for the fall, assess for risk factors such as osteoporosis, provide comprehensive medical management, provide pain control, and of course, fix the fracture.
This medical center published a paper looking at their success with this model. They retrospectively reviewed 306 patients with femur fractures involving the greater trochanter. They looked at complications, length of stay, readmission rate and post-discharge mortality. No change in length of stay was noted, but there were significantly fewer complications, specifically catheter associated urinary tract infections and arrhythmias. The readmission rate was somewhat shorter in the MOTS group, but did not quite achieve significance with regression analysis.
Bottom line: This type of multidisciplinary approach to these fragile patients makes sense. Hospitalists, especially those with geriatric experience, can have a significant impact on the safety and outcomes of these patients. But even beyond this, all trauma professionals need to look for and correct the reasons for the fall, not just fix the bones and send our elders home. This responsibility starts in the field with prehospital providers, and continues with hospital through the entire inpatient stay.
Reference: The medical orthopaedic service (MOTS): an innovative multidisciplinary team model that decreases in-hospital complications in patients with hip fractures. J Orthopaedic Trauma 26(6):379-383, 2012.
The Advanced Trauma Life Support course lists “classes of hemorrhage”, and various other sources list a similar classification for shock. I’ve not been able to pinpoint where these concepts came from, exactly. But I am sure of one thing: you will be tested on it at some point in your lifetime.
Here’s the table used by the ATLS course:
The question you will always be asked is:
What class of hemorrhage (or what % of blood volume loss) is the first to demonstrate systolic hypotension?
This is important because prehospital providers and those in the ED typically rely on systolic blood pressure to figure out if their patient is in trouble.
The answer is Class III, or 30-40%. But how do you remember the damn percentages?
It’s easy! The numbers are all tennis scores. Here’s how to remember them:
up to 15%
Love – 15
15 – 30
30 – 40
Game (almost) over!
Bottom line: Never miss that question again!
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