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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Chest Tube Repositioning – Final Answer

So you’re faced with a chest tube that “someone else” inserted, and the followup chest xray shows that the last drain hole is outside the chest. What to do?

Well, as I mentioned, there is very little written on this topic, just dogma. So here are some practical tips on avoiding or fixing this problem:

  • Don’t let it happen to you! When inserting the tube, make sure that it’s done right! I don’t recommend making large skin incisions just to inspect your work. Most tubes can be inserted through a 2cm incision, but you can’t see into the depths of the wound. There are two tricks:
    • In adults with a reasonable BMI, the last hole is in when the tube markings show 12cm (bigger people need bigger numbers, though)
    • After insertion, get into the habit of running a finger down the radiopaque stripe on the tube all the way to the chest wall. If you don’t feel a hole (which is punched through the stripe), this will confirm that the it is inside, and that the tube actually goes into the chest. You may laugh, but I’ve seen them placed under the scapula. This even looks normal on chest xray!
  • Patients with a high BMI may not need anything done. The soft tissue will probably keep the hole occluded. If there is no air leak, just watch it.
  • If the tube was just put in and the wound has just been prepped and dressed, and the hole is barely outside the rib line, you might consider repositioning it a centimeter or two. Infection is a real concern, so if in doubt, go to the next step.
  • Replace the tube, using a new site. Yes, it’s a nuisance and requires more anesthetic and possibly sedation, but it’s better than treating an empyema in a few days.

Related posts:

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Chest Tube Repositioning – Part 2

Yesterday I presented the problem of the malpositioned chest tube, specifically one that is not completely in the pleural space. This one is way out:

So what do the doctor books say? Well, the first thing you will discover if you try to look it up is that THERE IS NO LITERATURE ON THIS COMMON PROBLEM! There are a few papers on tubes placed in the fissure and tubes inserted into the lung parenchyma. But there are only a few mentions of tubes with holes still outside the chest.

I’ve gotten a number of comments, including “you can push them in a little”, “take it out and put in another”, and “never push them in.” Since we don’t have any science to guide us, we have to use common sense. But remember, I’ve shown you plenty of examples where something seems reasonable, but turns out to be ineffective or downright harmful.

There are three principles that guide me when I face this problem:

  • Prevention is preferable to intervention
  • Do no (or as little as possible) further harm
  • Be creative

Tomorrow, I’ll finish this series and provide some tips and guidelines to help manage this problem using the principles outlined above.

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What To Do When The Chest Tube Is Not In The Right Place

It happens from time to time. Your patient has a hemothorax or pneumothorax and you insert a chest tube. Well done! But then the xray comes back:

The last hole in the drain is outside the chest! What to do???

Here are the questions that need to be answered:

  • Pull it out, leave it, or push it in?
  • Does length of time the tube has been in make a difference?
  • Does BMI matter?

Leave comments below regarding what you do. Hints and final answers next!

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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.

Posts in this series:

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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