All posts by TheTraumaPro

The Right Way to Treat Tension Pneumothorax

Tension pneumothorax is an uncommon but potentially lethal manifestation of chest injury. An injury to the lung occurs that creates a one-way valve effect, allowing a small amount of air to escape with every breath. Eventually the volume becomes so large as to cause the lung and mediastinum to push toward the other side, with profound hypotension and cardiovascular collapse.

The classic clinical findings are:

  • Hypotension
  • Decreased or absent breath sounds on the affected side
  • Hyperresonance to percussion
  • Shift of the trachea away from the affected side
  • Distended neck veins

You should never diagnose a tension pneumothorax with a chest xray or CT scan, because the diagnosis is a clinical one and the patient may die while these procedures are carried out. Having said that, here’s one:

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The arrow points to the completely collapsed lung. Note the trachea bowing to the right.

As soon as the diagnosis is made, the right thing to do is to “needle the chest.” A large bore angiocath should be placed in the second intercostal space, mid-clavicular line, sliding right over the top of the third rib. The needle should then be removed, leaving the catheter.

The traditional large bore needle is 14 gauge, but they tend to be short and flimsy. They may not penetrate the pleura in an obese patient, and will probably kink off rapidly. Order the largest, longest angiocath possible and stock them in your trauma resuscitation rooms.

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The top catheter in this photo is a 14 gauge 1.25 inch model. The bottom (preferred at Regions) is a 10 gauge 3 inch unit. Big difference! 

The final tip to treating a tension pneumothorax is that a chest tube must be placed immediately after inserting the needle. If the patient is on a ventilator, the positive pressure will slowly expand the lung. But if they are breathing spontaneously, the needle will change the tension pneumothorax into a simple open pneumothorax. Patients with other cardiovascular problems will not tolerate this for long and may need to be intubated if you dawdle.

Related post:

How Big Should Your Trauma Bay Be?

Trauma resuscitation rooms vary tremendously. They can range from very spacious…

to very tight…

Most trauma bays that I have visited were somewhere between 225 and 300 square feet (21-28 sq meters), although some were quite large (Rashid Hospital in Dubai at nearly 50 sq meters!).

Interestingly, I did manage to find a set of published guidelines on this topic. The Facility Guidelines Institute (FGI) develops detailed recommendations for the design of a variety of healthcare facilities. Here are their guidelines for adult trauma bays:

  • Single patient room: The clear floor area should be 250 sq ft (23 sq m), with a minimum clearance of 5 feet on all sides of the patient stretcher.
  • Multiple patient room: The clear floor area should be 200 sq ft (18.5 sq m) with curtains separating patient areas. Minimum clearance of 5 feet on all sides of the patient stretcher should be maintained.

The FGI “clear floor area” corresponds to my “Trauma Bay Working Area”, which is the area that excludes all the carts, cabinets, and countertops scattered about the usual trauma room. California’s guideline of 280 sq feet seems pretty reasonable as the “Trauma Bay Total Area”, if you can keep your wasted space down to about 30 sq feet.

Bottom line: Once again, don’t try to figure out everything from scratch. Somebody has probably already done it (designed a trauma bay, developed a practice guideline, etc). But remember, a generic guideline or even one developed for a specific institution may not completely fit your situation. In this case, the FGI guidelines say nothing about the trauma team size, which is a critical factor in space planning. Use the work of others as a springboard to jump start your own efforts at solving the problem.

Related posts:

July Newsletter Released!

The July newsletter is now available! Click the link below to download. This month’s topic is “Malpractice and Trauma, part 2”.

In this issue you’ll find articles on:

  • Does open discussion at M&M increase lawsuits?
  • Is family presence during trauma resuscitation risky?
  • EMS liability litigation
  • Basics of nursing malpractice
  • Forensic nursing

Subscribers received the newsletter last weekend. If you want to subscribe to get early delivery in the future (and download back issues), click here.

Click here to download newsletter.

Practical Tip: Penetrating Injury To The Vertebral Artery

This is an uncommon injury. But when encountered it can cause the trauma professional (and the patient) some major headaches. The majority of the vertebral artery injuries you are likely to encounter are caused by blunt trauma. They are generally diagnosed using CT angiography, and the treatment usually consists of low dose anti-platelet agents like aspirin. Occasionally, coiling or stenting using interventional radiology is needed.

But penetrating trauma is a totally different animal. Gunshot is the most common mechanism, because of the small windows available to access the artery within the vertebral canal using a knife. See the course of the artery in the picture below:

Unfortunately, this bony cage also makes it difficult to surgically approach the artery, especially if the field is continually filling with blood.

The techniques for dealing with this injury according to the doctor books are:

  • Send the patient to interventional radiology. Cutting off flow using coils is the preferred technique. Gelfoam and other products are not used because of the concern for distal embolization (to the brain). Stenting may be a consideration for blunt trauma, but not for penetrating.
  • Or, obtain proximal control by ligating the vertebral artery as it takes off from the subclavian. Hmm, this requires either a separate incision, or a supraclavicular extension of your neck incision. It takes time and is not as easy as it sounds.

Generally, the trauma surgeon stumbles upon this injury while doing a trauma neck exploration. Bleeding can be pesky, and may serve to obscure the field. My preferred method of control is:

  • Jam a wad of bone wax into the vertebral canal right where the bleeding is coming from.
  • Then jam another wad into the canal in the space below it. Proximal control!
  • Jam one final wad into the space above, if accessible. Distal control!

End of problem. Then do a thorough evaluation for all other injuries and address them. Feel free to share any additional tips that you may have!