All posts by TheTraumaPro

Fracture Blisters Demystified

Fracture blisters pop up (!) in trauma patients now and then, and nobody seems to know what to do with them. Here’s a primer on dealing with them.

A fracture blister typically occurs near fractures where the skin has little subcutaneous tissue between it and bone. These include elbows, knees, ankles and wrists. They tend to complicate fracture management because they interfere with splinting, casting, and incision planning for open reduction procedures. They can appear anytime within a few hours of injury to 2-3 weeks later.

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These blisters are thought to be caused by shearing forces applied at the time of injury. There are two types described, based on their color: clear fluid and hemorrhagic. The difference lies in the level of the shear. Clear fluid blisters have separated within the epidermis, and hemorrhagic blisters separate at the dermal-epidermal junction. The clinical difference is healing time; clear blisters take about 12 days and hemorrhagic blisters heal in about 16 days. 

So should we pop the blisters and operate/splint, or wait for them to heal and then go to surgery? Unfortunately, there’s no great data on this and it usually hinges on the preferences of the orthopaedic surgeon. Waiting delays care an average of 7 days, and longer for tibial plateau and calcaneal fractures. Operating immediately anecdotally increases wound infection rates.

Bottom line: Anticipate fracture blisters by looking at location and severity of mechanism. Try to schedule operative reduction as soon as is practical. And monitor the wound closely to make sure that delayed blisters don’t cause complications due to splinting or casting.

The 8 Hour Rule For Open Fractures: We’re So Over That

For decades, the standard of care for irrigation and debridement (I&D) of open fractures has been within 8 hours of injury. There is a growing body of orthopedic literature that says this isn’t necessarily so.

A paper presented at AAST, but not yet published, retrospectively looked at their experience with early (<8hrs) vs late I&D in a series of 248 patients. They looked at infection rates stratified by time and upper vs lower extremity.

They found that the infection rates overall were not significantly different. However, when subgrouped by extremity and higher Gustilo type >= III, they noted that both delayed I&D and Gustilo type correlated with infection risk. For the upper extremity, only Gustilo type >= III correlated with a higher infection rate.

The authors concluded that all lower extremity open fractures should be dealt with in the 8 hour time frame, whereas upper extremity fractures can be delayed for lower Gustilo classes.

Bottom line: I don’t necessarily buy into all the results from this small study. The orthopedic literature has already refined this concept. At Regions Hospital, we allow up to 16 hours to I&D for open fractures up to and including Gustilo class IIIA. Above that, the 8 hour rule is followed. We periodically review our registry data on all open fracture patients to make sure that the extended time frame patients are not experiencing an increase in wound complications. And they haven’t in our 8 year experience in handling them this way.

Refresher on the Gustilo classification system:

  • Class I – open fracture, clean wound, <1cm laceration
  • Class II – clean wound, laceration >1cm with minimal soft tissue damage
  • Class IIIA – clean wound, more extensive soft tissue damage or laceration, periosteum intact, minimal contamination
  • Class IIIB – extensive soft tissue damage with periosteal stripping or bone damage, significant contamination
  • Class IIIC – arterial injury without regard for degree soft tissue injury

Reference: Open extremity fractures: does delay in operative debridement and irrigation impact infection rates? AAST 2011 Annual Meeting, Paper 22.

Best Of: Off-Label Use of the Foley Catheter

Foley catheters are a mainstay of medical care in patients who need control or measurement of urine output. Leave it to trauma surgeons to find warped, new ways to use them!

Use of these catheters to tamponade penetrating cardiac injuries has been recognized for decades (see picture, 2 holes!). Less well appreciated is their use to stop bleeding from other penetrating wounds.

Foley catheter in heart

Foley catheters can be inserted into just about any small penetrating wound with bleeding that does not respond to direct pressure. (Remember, direct pressure is applied by one or two fingers only, with no flat dressings underneath to diffuse the pressure). Arterial bleeding, venous bleeding or both can be controlled with this technique. 

In general, the largest catheter with the largest possible balloon should be selected. It is then inserted directly into the wound until the entire balloon is inside the body. Inflate the balloon using saline until firm resistance is encounted, and the bleeding hopefully stops. Important: be sure to clamp the end of the catheter so the bleeding doesn’t find the easy way out!

Use of catheter tamponade buys some time, but these patients need to be in the OR. In general, once other life threatening issues are dealt with in the resuscitation room, the patient should be moved directly to the operating room. In rare cases, an angiogram may be needed to help determine the type of repair. However, in the vast majority of cases, the surgeon will know exactly where the injury is and further study is not needed. The catheter is then prepped along with most of the patient so that the operative repair can be completed.

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Interesting Concept: The Abdominal Aortic & Junctional Tourniquet

Tourniquets for extremity bleeding are definitely back in vogue. Our military experience over the past 20 years has shown us what a life saver this simple tool can be. It’s now carried by many prehospital trauma professionals for use in the civilian population. But what about bleeding from the nether regions? You know what I’m talking about, the so-called junctional zones. Those are the areas that are too proximal (or too dangerous) to put on a tourniquet, like the groin, perineum, axilla, and neck.

Traditionally, junctional zone injury could only be treated in the field with direct pressure, clamps, or in some cases a balloon (think 30Fr Foley catheter inserted and blown up as large as possible, see link below). In the old days, we could try blowing up the MAST trousers to try to get a little control, but those are getting hard to find. 

An Alabama company (Compression Works) developed a very novel concept to try to help, the Abdominal Aortic and Junctional Tourniquet (AAJT). Think of it as a pelvic compression device that you purposely apply too high.

Note the cool warning sticker at the bottom of the device!

The developers performed a small trial on 16 volunteer soldiers after doing a preliminary test on themselves (!). The device was placed around the abdomen, above the pelvis, and inflated to a maximum of 250 torr. Here are the factoids:

  • All subjects tolerated the device, and no complications occurred
  • Flow through the common femoral artery stopped in 15 of the 16 subjects
  • The subject in whom it did not work exceeded the BMI and abdominal girth parameters of the device
  • Average pain score after application was 6-7 (i.e. hurts like hell!)

Here’s a list of the criteria that preclude use of this device:

Bottom line: This would seem to be a very useful device for controlling hemorrhage from pesky areas below the waist.

BUT! Realistically, it will enjoy only limited use in the civilian population for now. Take a closer look at the exclusion criteria above. Half of the population is ineligible right off the bat (women). And among civilians, more than a third are obese in the US. Toss in a smattering of the other criteria, and the unlikelihood of penetrating trauma to that area in civilians, it won’t make financial sense for your average prehospital agency to carry it. Maybe in high violence urban areas, but not anywhere else.

The company has received approval for use in pelvic and axillary hemorrhage control, so we’ll see how it works when more and larger studies are released (on more and larger people). 

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Reference: The evaluation of an abdominal aortic tourniquet for the control of pelvic and lower abdominal hemorrhage. Military Med 178(11):1196-1201, 2013.

Thanks to David Beversluis for bringing this product to my attention. I have no financial interest in Compression Works.

Warfarin Reversal For Emergent Surgery Using PCC

Yesterday I published a protocol that Regions Hospital uses for rapid reversal of warfarin in patients with life-threatening bleeding. This is very useful in trauma patients, but a number of other specialties use it as well (GI, etc). But what about that patient who doesn’t have a major bleeding problem, but needs emergency surgery or some invasive procedure? If something isn’t done prior to the case, the surgeon or interventionalist may inflict life-threatening bleeding!

We use a variant of the protocol I posted yesterday. The differences arise from the fact that, in this case, there is a little bit of time to find out some of the patient’s medical history. Certain things may modify the protocol, or contraindicate it entirely, such as:

  • Is the patient in DIC?
  • Do they have heparin induced thrombocytopenia (HIT)?
  • Do they have a history of significant peripheral vascular disease or thrombotic tendencies?
  • Will they need to be re-anticoagulated afterwards?

Again, feel free to download this protocol and modify it as you wish. Comments and questions are welcome!

Download the warfarin reversal for emergent surgery protocol here

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