Category Archives: Technique

The Trauma Activation Pat-Down?

Yes, this is another one of my pet peeves. During a trauma activation, we all strive to adhere to the Advanced Trauma Life Support protocols. Primary survey, secondary survey, etc. Usually, the primary survey is done well.

But then we get to the secondary survey, and things get sloppy.

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The secondary survey is supposed to be a quick yet thorough physical exam, both front and back. But all too often it’s quick, and not so thorough. There is the usual laying on of the hands, but barely. Abdominal palpation is usually done well. But little effort is put into checking stability of the pelvis. The extremities are gently patted down with the hope of finding fractures. Joints are slightly flexed, but not stressed at all.

Is it just a slow degradation of physical exam skills? Is it increasing (and misguided) faith in the utility of the CT scanner? I don’t really know. But it’s real!

Bottom line: Watch yourself and your team as they perform the secondary survey! Your goal is to find all the injuries you can before you go to imaging. This means deep palpation, twisting and trying to bend extremities looking for fractures, stressing joints looking for laxity. And doing a good neuro exam! Don’t let your physical exam skills atrophy! Your patients will thank you.

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Video: Minimally Invasive Repair Of Rectal Injuries

Extraperitoneal rectal injury repair has evolved considerably over the past 40 years. Way back when, this injury automatically triggered exploration, diverting colostomy with washout of the distal colon, and presacral drain insertion (remember those?).

We eventually backed off on the presacral drains (pun intended), which didn’t make a lot of sense anyway. And we gave up on dissecting down deep into the pelvis to approach the injury. This only served to contaminate an otherwise pristine peritoneal cavity. Ditto for the distal rectal washout. So we have been performing a diverting colostomy as the primary method of treatment for years.

A Brief Report in the British Medical Journal Open shows us what may very well be the next stage in treating these injuries. Whereas they were previously left to heal on their own followed by colostomy closure after a few months, these authors from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto are promoting a minimally invasive approach to definitive management.

They detail two cases, one an impalement by a steel rod through the rectum and bladder, and one stab to the buttock. The authors dealt with the non-rectal injuries using conventional techniques. The rectal injuries were repaired using trans-anal minimally invasive surgery (TAMIS). Both were discharged without complications.

Here is a link to the video of the technique used in the stab victim:

Click here for video

Bottom line: It’s about time! As long as there is not a destructive injury to the extraperitoneal rectum, this seems like a great technique to try. It may very well eliminate the need for a diverting colostomy.

But remember, this is only a case report. We don’t know about antibiotic duration, followup imaging, longer term complications, or anything really. A larger series of cases is warranted to provide these answers. This will take some time due to the low frequency of this injury. So if you try it, build your own series and publish it so we all can learn!

Reference: Minimally invasive approach to low-velocity penetrating  extraperitoneal rectal trauma. BMJ Open 5(1) epub 5/12/2020.

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2 Ways To Perform A Pericardial Window For Trauma: Part 2 With Video!

In my last post, I reviewed the classic, “old-timey” subxyphoid approach to the pericardial window procedure for trauma. Today, I’ll describe the operative approach if you are already in the abdomen managing injuries there.

The same considerations apply to these patients in deciding to perform the window. Either there is a suspicion of actual pericardial tamponade based on physiology or diagnostic imaging, or an injury has been noted in proximity to the heart that raises that suspicion.

If you are already exploring the abdomen, the procedure is much simpler. The instruments required are already in your laparotomy setup:

  • Two toothed forceps
  • Tissue (Metzenbaum) scissors

First, and most importantly, the upper abdomen must be evacuated of all blood. This is critically important since a positive window is solely determined by the presence of blood in the pericardial fluid. If it is contaminated with blood as it flows into the peritoneal cavity, a false positive may result leading to an unneeded thoracotomy or sternotomy.

The midline incision must extend to the xiphoid process in order to get adequate exposure of the diaphragm. The left lobe of the liver is retracted downwards by your assistant, and the two of you can then grasp an area of the pericardial portion of the diaphragm with the toothed forceps. As it is tented away from the heart, the scissors are used to dissect through both the diaphragm and pericardium. Although some use cautery for this, I’m a weenie using electricity near the heart.

The diaphragm is thick, so expect to cut through several mm of tissue before you see pericardial fluid. Watch the color of the fluid carefully. If it is the least bit blood tinged, the result is positive. And be sure to watch for 15-30 seconds. Sometimes the initial fluid is amber, but it becomes bloody as more is drained.

Bloody fluid equals positive result. This means that a thoracic procedure is indicated to evaluate the heart and repair the injury. The choice of sternotomy vs thoracotomy is determined by mechanism, foreign body trajectory, and suspected area of injury on the heart.

If the result is negative, you may close the hole with your suture of choice. If the abdomen is contaminated from a bowel injury, I recommend you use the traditional subxiphoid approach separate from the laparotomy incision to avoid contaminating the pericardial sac.

Here’s a YouTube video of a transdiaphragmatic window created laparoscopically. Since abdominal explorations for major trauma seldom lend themselves to laparoscopy, don’t get any ideas from watching this!

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2 Ways To Perform A Pericardial Window For Trauma: Part 1 with Video!

In this two-part post, I’ll describe two ways to perform a pericardial window for trauma. The pericardial window should be considered in any trauma patient who has one of the following:

  • A suspected diagnosis of pericardial tamponade. These patients do not yet have classic signs and symptoms. If they did, a thoracotomy or sternotomy is in order, not a window.  But they do have a mechanism that could produce bleeding into the pericardial sac, and a positive imaging study. Typically, this study is a FAST exam of the heart. Occasionally, pericardial fluid may be seen on chest CT. This is uncommon but significant when detected.
  • An injury in proximity to the heart that is of concern for cardiac injury with a negative or indeterminant FAST. These are typically penetrating injuries so close to the heart that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t injured. If the FAST is not helpful, a window will make the definitive diagnosis.

Pericardial window is a very invasive procedure. For trauma, it is usually performed in the operating room and requires general anesthesia. It could be performed in the ED if the patient is already intubated and sedated.

There are two ways to perform this procedure. Today, I’ll discuss the old-timey subxiphoid approach.  The equipment required is minimal:

  • Scalpel
  • Tissue (Metzenbaum) scissors
  • Once or two toothed forceps
  • Your finger
  • Good lighting

A 4-8 cm incision is made extending from the top of the xiphoid, extending about 4 cm down onto the abdominal midline. Enter the retrosternal space with your finger, and head to the heart. Usually, some fatty tissue must be bluntly dissected out of the way. Note: the heart is frequently further away than you think!

Sweep the fat out of the way, exposing the pericardium. Grasp the pericardium with the toothed forceps and tent it away from the heart. Use the Metzenbaum scissors to incise the pericardium immediately adjacent to the forceps. If this is difficult, then have an assistant grasp the pericardium with another pair so a short line of pericardium is elevated. (Note: sometimes having a second set of forceps in the incision makes it too difficult to see, which is why I prefer the single forceps technique).

Make sure that the wound is bloodless when you incise the pericardium! There is always at least a small amount of pericardial fluid that will squirt out, and you are looking at its color. If it is anything but amber, you have a positive result. If you have a bloody field that contaminates the fluid, a false positive diagnosis could occur leading to an unnecessary thoracotomy.

If the window is positive, cover the wound and head immediately to the OR if your’re not already there. Your patient has a cardiac injury until proven otherwise. If negative, then close the skin wound with your sutures / staples of choice. Do not attempt to close the tiny pericardial hole!

Here’s a video that shows the basic technique. The procedure depicted is being performed for non-trauma, so the operator takes his time. He has the luxury of dissecting and exposing the field well. But in trauma, we don’t usually have time to resect the xiphoid or take 10 minutes to dissect out the field.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the technique that is used if you already find yourself in the abdomen when a cardiac injury is suspected.

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Retained Hemothorax Part 1: Lytics

Hemothorax is a common complication of chest trauma, occurring in about one third of cases. It is commonly treated with a chest tube, which usually takes care of the problem. But in a few cases some blood remains, which can result in an entrapped lung or empyema.

There are several management options. Historically, these patients underwent thoracotomy to peel out the fibrinous collection stuck to lung and chest wall. This has given way to the more humane VATS procedure (video assisted thoracoscopic surgery) which accomplishes the same thing using a scope. In some cases, another tube can be inserted, sometimes under CT guidance, to try to drain the blood.

So what about lytics? It’s fibrin, right? So why not just dissolve it with tissue plasminogen activator (tPA)? There have been very few studies published over the years. The most recent was in 2014. I’ll review it today, and another tomorrow. Finally, I’ll give you my thoughts on the best way to deal with retained hemothorax.

Here are the factoids:

  • This was a single center, retrospective review of data from 1.5 years beginning in 2009
  • A total of seven patients were identified, and most had hemothorax due to rib fractures. Three presented immediately after their injury, 4 were delayed.
  • Median time from injury to chest tube placement was 11 days
  • Median time the chest tube was in place was 13 days, with an average hospital stay of 14 days
  • Patients received 1 to 5 treatments, averaging 24mg per dose
  • There was one death in the group, unrelated to TPA treatment
  • No patient “required” VATS, but one underwent thoracotomy, which turned out to be for a malignancy

Bottom line: The authors conclude that tPA use for busting retained hemothorax is both safe and effective. Really? With only seven patients? The biggest problem with this study is that it uses old, retrospective data. We have no idea why these patients were selected for tPA in this 5-year old cohort of patients. Why did it take so long to put in chest tubes? Why did the chest tubes stay in so long? Maybe this is why they were in the hospital so long?

Plus, tPA is expensive. A 100mg vial runs about $6000. Does repeatedly using an expensive drug and keeping a patient in the hospital an extra week or so make financial sense? So it better work damn well, and this small series doesn’t demonstrate that.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the next most recent paper on the topic, from way back in 2004.

Reference: Evaluation of chest tube administration of tissue plasminogen activator to treat retained hemothorax. Am J Surg 267(6):960-963, 2014.

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