Category Archives: General

Less Morbidity From Negative Trauma Laparotomies?

Trauma surgeons generally dread the negative laparotomy for trauma. Previous work has shown that complications occur in anywhere from 22% to 53% of cases. Those studies were usually retrospective and included patients with penetrating trauma, which may have skewed the results.

A newly published study tries to throw this common wisdom in doubt. It was a retrospective review of a prospectively maintained database of trauma admissions after blunt trauma . Patients were separated into groups who underwent immediate, delayed or no laparotomy, as well as whether they had or did not have associated injuries. Complications were tracked using an accurate and validated tracking system. The complications tracked included death, DVT, PE, infections, pulmonary issues, as well as other organ system problems.

The authors found that a negative laparotomy did not increase the complication rate, but that a delayed laparotomy did. They also noted that a Complication Impact Score (that they made up) was higher in the delay to laparotomy patients. So they believe that when clinical and imaging findings are equivocal, doing an operation to establish a diagnosis is justifiable.

My Bottom Line: This study does not look at really delayed complications like small bowel obstruction, which we see with some regularity in old trauma patients. Also, other studies have also shown that brief observation, even in patients with a bowel injury, does not increase complications significantly. Unless the potential injury that you are observing is known to have significant complications, my practice is to observe equivocal cases in order to avoid more complications down the road.

Reference: “Never be wrong”: the morbidity of negative and delayed laparotomies after blunt trauma. J Trauma 69(6): 1386-1392, 2010.

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Ladder Safety In The Winter

We’ve seen a cluster of falls from the roof and/or ladders outdoors in the last week. And yes, it is very snowy in Minnesota, but ladder falls can happen to the best of us, even indoors (watch the QVC video above).

There have been five admissions to Regions Hospital’s Level I Trauma Center for adults after people fell from the roof in St. Paul since Christmas eve. All of them had serious injuries. Two died, and three sustained fractures involving elbow, spine or pelvis. I’ve seen lots of similar injuries after Christmas, when it’s time to take the lights down.

The St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections released a statement that people should use “severe caution” while removing ice dams and snow from the roof. They go on to recommend that you “call a professional if you do not feel safe performing the work yourself.”

The problem with this statement is that the men (the majority of those injured) who climb up onto the roof do feel safe clearing the roof! They believe that this is something that they are quite capable of doing themselves. 

I recommend that we all take this statement one step further. Since everything is more hazardous outside this time of year (ice and snow on the ground and the roof), any homeowner who believes that their roof needs service should contact a professional to take care of it. If a fall occurs, you will miss some of the holiday season, and possibly permanently!

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Nail Discoloration After Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Occasionally, patients who have had a severe brain injury but recovered relatively quickly may present with complaints of odd nail discoloration. This may involve fingernails and/or toenails. What gives?

This is actually a byproduct of repeated exams to determine the Glasgow Coma Scale score. A common way to determine the motor component is to squeeze the fingertip or toetip. I’ve seen some neurosurgeons use a pen to apply a great deal of force to the nail.

The discoloration is a resolving subungual hematoma. You may see different colors under different nails, depending on the age of the hematoma. Amaze your colleagues with your knowledge on this one!

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Clinical Tip: The Flat Vena Cava in Blunt Trauma

Trauma patients who are hypotensive in the Emergency Department can only be transported to one of two places: the operating room or the morgue. With rare exception, they should never be taken outside the department (e.g. CT scan) because of the fear that they may arrest in an area that is not conducive to efficient resuscitation.

Sometimes patients are initially stable but decompensate later. Since most stable blunt trauma patients end up in CT scan, perhaps there is some telltale sign that can predict later deterioration. A recent Japanese paper looked at the “flatness” of the inferior vena cava as seen on the abdominal CT scan as a predictor of hemodynamic decompensation in the first 24 hours.

A small cohort of 114 patients was used in this prospective study. The vena cava was evaluated at the level of the renal veins. The flatness of the IVC was determined by dividing the transverse diameter by the anteroposterior (AP) diameter. A flat IVC was defined as a transverse to AP diameter ratio of more than 4:1. The ratio in normal patients was about 2:1. See the figure for details.

Patients who had a flat IVC required significantly more blood transfusions, crystalloid infusions within 2 hours of admission, and were more likely to proceed to the OR within the first 24 hours of their hospital stay.

Bottom Line: Assuming that you are only taking stable blunt trauma patients to CT, the incidental finding of a flat vena cava should increase your paranoia levels and lower your threshold for ordering blood and getting the trauma surgeons involved. 

Reference: Predictive value of a flat inferior vena cava on initial computed tomography for hemodynamic deteroration in patients with blunt torso trauma. J Trauma 69(6):1398-1402, 2010.

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What Is The Cost of the “Personal Freedom” Not To Wear A Motorcycle Helmet?

The Highway Safety Act of 1966 led to a mandate that all states adopt universal helmet laws for all motorcycle riders or risk the loss of federal highway funds. By 1975, all but 3 states had enacted these laws. However, Congress then did an about-face and eliminated the helmet law requirement for receiving the funds. Many states then revisited their laws, and some repealed them. As of now, 20 states (and D.C.) have inclusive helmet laws, 27 have conditional laws, and 3 (IL, IA, NH) have no helmet requirements.

Croce and his group in Memphis looked at the impact of helmet use in motorcyclists using the National Trauma Data Bank from 2002-2007. They found:

  • Helmet use was higher in states with helmet laws (90%), vs conditional laws (61%), vs no laws (53%)
  • Helmeted riders had less severe injuries in nearly all brain and skull trauma. Glasgow Coma Scale and Injury Severity Scores were significantly lower.
  • Cervical spine fractures were less frequent in helmeted patients (3.9% vs 5.9%)
  • Hospital and ICU stays were shorter for riders who wore helmets
  • Mortality was significantly lower in helmeted motorcyclists (3.8% vs 6.7%)
  • Significantly more helmeted riders were insured

Advocacy groups continue to try to repeal or weaken helmet laws, generally based on a 1986 report (ref 2) which stated that helmets decrease peripheral vision and hearing, increase the number of cervical injuries, and have no impact on mortality. Frequently, proponents of helmet law repeal also claim that the laws infringe on personal freedom.

Helmets do decrease peripheral vision by 20 degrees, but research and a DOT report have shown that this has no impact on motorcycle safety or impact rates (refs 3,4). Helmets have been shown to have no impact on hearing at low speeds, and all riders (with or without helmets) have decreased hearing at higher speeds. Helmets do not diminish or enhance hearing at any given speed (ref 4). A number of studies, including this one, have shown that cervical injuries are less frequent in riders who survive the crash.

The insurance and hospital utilization information in this paper is most interesting. Unhelmeted riders have more significant injuries, are more likely to stay in the hospital and ICU longer, and are much less likely to have insurance to pay for it. And this is for the survivors! Deaths create an even greater societal burden, with lost lifetime earnings, tax revenues and other adverse economic effects.

Courts have repeatedly upheld mandatory helmet laws under the Constitution when challenged. A federal court once responded to one of these challenges with this quote: 

“From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway, delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume responsibility for his and his family’s subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.”

For a list of current helmet law status by state, click here.

References:

  1. Impact of motorcycle helmets and state laws on society’s burden. J Trauma 250(3):390-394, 2009.
  2. The effect of motorcycle helmet use on the probability of fatality and the severity of head and neck injuries: a latent variable framework. Evaluation Review 10:335-375, 1986.
  3. Motorcycle helmets – medical costs and the law. J Trauma 30:1189-1199, 1990.
  4. The effects of motorcycle helmets upon seeing and hearing. NHTSA Report number DOT HS 808-399, 1994.
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