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Top 10 Worst Complications: #1 Nasocerebral Tube

Minor complications from nasogastric tube insertion occur relatively frequently. Emesis is fairly common when the gag reflex is stimulated by the tube in the back of the oropharynx. An infrequent but possibly fatal one is insertion through the cribriform plate. 

The cribriform plate is located directly posterior to the nares and is part of the ethmoid bone. It is very porous in nature and weaker than the surrounding portions of the ethmoid. It is easily fractured, and can be seen is association with basilar skull fractures. This is one source for rhinorrhea in patients with these fractures.

Cribriform fracture is a contraindication to unprotected insertion of a nasogastric tube. If you look at the sagittal section below, the plate lies directly behind the nares. When inserting the NG tube, we are usually taught to aim the tube straight back. Unfortunately, this aims it directly at the cribriform. If a fracture is present, it is possible that you may be inserting a nasocerebral tube!

Cribriform plate - sagittal section

The usual symptoms when this occurs consist of immediate neurologic deterioration to coma, and a unilateral or bilateral blown pupil. The tube must not be withdrawn, because it will cause significant injury to the base of the brain. A stat neurosurgical consultation must be obtained, and if the patient is salvageable, the tube must be withdrawn through a craniectomy.

To avoid this dreaded complication, identify patients at risk for cribriform injury. They are:

  • patients with signs of trauma from eyebrows to zygoma
  • comatose patients
  • patients with signs of basilar skull fracture (Battle’s sign, raccoon eyes, oto- or rhinorrhea)

If your patient is at risk, follow these guidelines:

  • first, does the patient really need a gastric tube?
  • if comatose, insert an orogastric tube
  • if awake, don’t put the tube in their mouth, as they will gag continuously. Instead, place a lubricated, curved nasal airway. Then lube up a slightly smaller Salem sump tube and pass it through the airway.

Nausea In The Trauma Bay: Gastric Tube vs Anti-Emetic Drugs?

Nausea and vomiting are common problems in trauma patients, particularly those in a trauma activation. Inciting factors include pain, full stomach from food eaten before the event or blood swallowed after, or reaction to pain medications. For years, trauma professionals reached for the lowly gastric tube to evacuate stomach contents to “solve” the problem.

But how many of you have seen a patient forcefully empty their stomach as soon as the tube touches the oropharynx? And of course, your patient is lying supine, so the vomitus goes straight up, then back down into their airway. And if their mental status is not quite right, they may aspirate, causing even bigger problems.

We’ve had anti-emetic medications for a long time, some more effective than others. Only recently have we begun to rely on these as a first line defense in the trauma resuscitation room. But do they work? Are they safer?

The University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands looked at this problem. They changed their policy from inserting a gastric tube to administering anti-emetics at the beginning of 2014. They studied their experience for the 6 months before and 6 months after the policy change. They inserted an orogastric (OG) tube preferentially before the switch, and used ondansetron and/or metoclopramide after.

Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 1446 trauma patients were admitted during this period. After excluding patients who were intubated or did not complain of nausea, 453 were analyzed (30%)
  • 20% of patients who had an OG tube placed vomited vs only 3% receiving medication (significant)
  • After therapy, 14% of patients receiving an OG were still nauseated vs only 2% getting meds (also significant)
  • 3 patients vomited and aspirated after OG placement, and 1 developed a pneumonia. 2 patients became bradycardic and med administration, and one developed QT-prolongation

Bottom line: This is a relatively small, retrospective study. Furthermore, the choice of gastric tube route (oral) is a setup for gagging and vomiting. Nasogastric tubes are a bit less noxious, but can’t be inserted in all patients (see tomorrow’s post). Even so, the use of anti-emetics in trauma patients complaining of nausea seems like the kinder, gentler way to go. 

Which drug to use? Previous studies have shown that ondansetron 4mg is as effective as 8mg, and that this drug is about equally as effective as metoclopramide. There is also some evidence that giving both is more effective than just giving one.

Gastric tubes are still important, particularly in the comatose patient. But since these patients are at risk for cribriform plate injury, only the oral route should be used.

Reference: Analysis of two treatment modalities for the prevention of vomiting after trauma: orogastric tube or anti-emetics. Injury (accepted manuscript, in press) online 8 July 2017.

When Is It Too Late To Call A Trauma Activation?

This is a related, follow-on post from yesterday, where I discussed activating your trauma team after transfer from another hospital. What about patients presenting directly to your hospital, but some time after their injury?

Admit it. It’s happened to you. You get paged to a trauma activation, hustle on down to the ED, and get dressed. The patient is calmly and comfortably lying on a cart, staring at you like you’re from Mars. Then you hear the story. He has a grade V spleen injury. But he just got back from CT scan. And his car crash was yesterday!

Is this appropriate? The answer is no! But, as you will see, the answer is not always as obvious as this example. The top thing to keep in mind in triggering a trauma activation appropriately is the reason behind having them in the first place.

The entire purpose of a trauma activation is speed. The assumption must be that your patient is dying and you have to (quickly) prove that they are not. It’s the null hypothesis of trauma.

Trauma teams are designed with certain common features:

  • A group of people with a common purpose
  • The ability to speed through the exam and bedside procedures via division of labor
  • Rapid access to diagnostic studies, like CT scan
  • Availability of blood products, if needed
  • Immediate access to an OR, if needed
  • Recognition in key departments throughout the hospital that a patient may need resources quickly

Every trauma center has trauma activation triage criteria that try to predict which patients will need this kind of speed. Does the patient in the example above need this? NO! He’s already been selected out to do well. Why, he’s practically finished the nonoperative solid organ management protocol on his own at home.

Here are some general rules:

  • If the patient meets any of your physiologic and/or anatomic criteria, they are or can be sick. Trigger immediately, regardless of how much time has passed.
  • If they meet only mechanism criteria and it’s been more than 6 hours since the event, they probably do not need the fast track.
  • If they only meet the “clinician / EMS judgment” criteria, think about what the suspected injuries are based on a quick history and brief exam. Once again, if more than 6 hours have passed and there are no physiologic disturbances, the time for needing a trauma activation is probably past.

If you do decide not to trigger an activation in one of these cases, please let your trauma administrative team (trauma medical director, trauma program manager) know as soon as possible. This may appear to be undertriage as they analyze the admission, and it’s important for them to know the reasoning behind your choice so they can accurately document under- and over-triage.

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Do I Have To Call My Trauma Team For Incoming Transfers?

I had a great question sent in by a reader last week:

Some trauma centers receive a number of transfers  from referring hospitals. Much of the time, a portion of the workup has already been done by that hospital. If the patient meets one or more of your trauma activation criteria, do you still need to activate your team when they arrive?

And the answer is: sometimes. But probably not that often.

Think about it. The reason you should be activating your team is that you suspect the patient may have an injury that demands rapid diagnosis and treatment. The purpose of any trauma activation is speed. Rapid evaluation. Fast lab results. Quick access to CT scan or OR. If a significant amount of time has already passed (transported to an outside hospital, worked up for an hour or two, then transported to you), then it is less likely that a trauma activation will benefit the patient.

There are four classes of trauma activation criteria. I’ll touch on each one and the need to activate in a delayed fashion if present, in priority order.

  • Physiologic. If there is a significant disturbance in vital signs while in transit to you (hypotension, tachycardia, respiratory problems, coma), then you must activate. Something else is going on that needs to be corrected as soon as the patient arrives. And remember the two mandatory ACS criteria that fall into this category: respiratory compromise/need for an emergent airway, and patients receiving blood to maintain vital signs. But a patient who needed an airway who is already intubated and no longer compromised does not need to be a trauma activation.
  • Anatomic. Most simple anatomic criteria (e.g. long bone or pelvic fractures) do not need a trauma activation unless the patient is beginning to show signs of physiologic compromise. However, anatomic criteria that require rapid treatment or access to the OR (proximal amputations, mangled or pulseless extremities, spinal cord injury) should be activated.
  • Mechanism. Most of the vague mechanistic criteria (falls, pedestrian struck, vehicle intrusion) do not require trauma activation after transfer to you. But once again, if the mechanism suggests a need for further rapid diagnosis or treatment (penetrating injury to abdomen), then activate.
  • Comorbidities. This includes underlying diseases, extremes of age, and pregnancy. In general, these will not require trauma activation after they arrive.

Bottom line: In many cases, the patient transferred in from another hospital will not need to be a trauma activation, especially if they have been reasonably assessed there. The patient should be rapidly eyeballed by your emergency physicians, and if there is any doubt about their condition, activate then.

However, if little workup was done at the outside hospital (my preference), and the injuries are “fresh” (less than a few hours old), then definitely call your team. 

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