Category Archives: Procedures

Chest Tube Tips

I’ve written a lot about chest tubes, but there’s actually a lot to know. And a fair amount of misinformation as well. Here’s some info you need to be familiar with:

  • Chest trauma generally means there is some blood in the chest. This has some bearing on which size chest tube you choose. Never assume that there is only pneumothorax based on the chest xray. Clot will plug up small tubes.
  • Chest tubes for trauma only come in two sizes: big (36Fr) and bigger (40Fr). Only these large sizes have a chance in evacuating most of the clot from the pleural space. The only time you should consider a smaller tube, or a pigtail type catheter, is if you know for a fact that there is no blood in the chest. The only way to tell this is with chest CT, which you should not be getting for diagnosis of ordinary chest trauma.
  • When inserting the tube, you have no control of the location the tube goes once you release the instrument used to place it. Some people believe they can direct a tube anteriorly, posteriorly, or anywhere they want. They can’t, and it’s not important (see next tip).
  • Specific tube placement is not important, as long as it goes in the pleural space. Some believe that posterior placement is best for hemothorax, and anterior placement for pneumothorax. It doesn’t really matter because the laws of physics make sure that everything gets sucked out of the chest regardless of position except for things too big to fit in the tube (e.g. the lung).
  • Tunneling the tube tract over a rib is not necessary in most people. In general, we have enough fat on our chest to ensure that the tract will close up immediately when the tube is pulled. A nicely placed dressing is your insurance policy.
  • Adhere to an organized tube management protocol to reduce complications and the time the tube is in the chest.

And finally, amaze your friends! The French system used to size chest tubes is the diameter of the tube in millimeters times three. So a 40Fr chest tube has a diameter of 13.3mm.

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Where is YOUR Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

Standard or universal precautions are essential in trauma. They serve two purposes: keeping you safe from exposure to body fluids, and keeping you from contaminating any open wounds. Unfortunately, they are not used as “universally” as they should be.

I’ve heard a number of excuses for not wearing them:

  • I don’t have time to put them on
  • They’re so hot!
  • It’s just a kid, I have nothing to worry about

All wrong! It takes less than 30 seconds to put them on. And yes, they may be a little warm, but if you have time to notice, then your trauma activations are taking too long. Anyone, including children, may have diseases you don’t want to share.

There are two major reasons that are legitimate and must be addressed:

  1. They are not conveniently placed. The deeper in the trauma room they are, the less likely anyone is to wear them (see photo). Place them just outside the door to your trauma bay in plain sight.
  2. Their use is not enforced. Assign specific people the role of PPE police. Emergency physicians and surgeons are optimal, but the charge nurse or others in authority positions are fine.

Develop a culture where the expectation is that everyone who enters the trauma bay, no matter what their rank, must be wearing their protective gear. Your philosophy should be “it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.” 

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Air Embolism From an Intraosseous (IO) Line

IO lines are a godsend when we are faced with a patient who desperately needs access but has no veins. The tibia is generally easy to locate and the landmarks for insertion are straightforward. They are so easy to insert and use, we sometimes “set it and forget it”, in the words of infomercial guru Ron Popeil.

But complications are possible. The most common is an insertion “miss”, where the fluid then infuses into the knee joint or soft tissues of the leg. Problems can also arise when the tibia is fractured, leading to leakage into the soft tissues. Infection is extremely rare.

This photo shows the inferior vena cava of a patient with bilateral IO line insertions (black bubble at the top of the round IVC). During transport, one line was inadvertently disconnected and probably entrained some air. There was no adverse clinical effect, but if the problem is not recognized and the line closed, there could be.

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